Hong Kong people took to the streets on Sunday in mass protests to demonstrate against a proposed extradition bill that critics say could force dissidents to stand trial in the mainland — and which ultimately threatens the city’s judicial autonomy.

Video and footage by Anthony Tao; top photo by William Yang

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets on Sunday in Hong Kong to demonstrate against a controversial proposed extradition bill. Demonstrators chanted “no China extradition” and “oppose evil law” while marching from Victoria Park to the city’s legislative council offices about two miles west. There were addition demands that Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, resign for supporting the proposed legislation.

The protests might well have been the largest Hong Kong has seen since the 1997 handover — organizers say 1.03 million people took part, while police estimate 240,000 at its peak. The march was largely orderly and peaceful until around midnight, when police clashed with a few pockets of demonstrators near the march’s endpoint.

At the center of the conflict is a set of amendments to Hong Kong’s Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, first proposed by the Hong Kong government in February, which critics say could leave any Hong Kong resident or foreign visitor passing through vulnerable to extradition to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party. The government has said it wants the bill passed by July, though no date has been finalized.

Despite the local government’s repeated assurances that necessary safeguards will be implemented to prevent people facing political or religious persecution from being extradited, Hong Kong’s pan-democratic legislators and legal experts still consider the bill a threat to the island’s judicial autonomy. “The foremost concern among Hong Kong people is that fundamental differences exist between Hong Kong and China’s judicial systems, and the lack of protection for human rights in China’s judicial system really worries many of them,” said Billy Li, Convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group.

Democratic and human rights groups, pro-business organizations, and the island’s legal sector have all publicly voiced opposition to the bill, forcing the government to announce two rounds of tweaks. In March, the government removed nine offenses related to white-collar crimes and promised to only approve extraditions for offenses punishable by three years in jail. And last Thursday, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee said the government would raise the bar for triggering extradition to include offenses punishable by seven years’ imprisonment, meaning seven more offenses related to criminal intimidation and unlawful sexual intercourse with minors would be removed from the bill.

However, many still view the concessions as merely cosmetic, and call the government’s claim that the bill is aimed at closing legal loopholes a “complete lie.” Claudia Mo, a pan-democratic legislator in Hong Kong, says Hong Kong people simply don’t have any trust or confidence in China’s rule of law, and warns that passing the extradition bill would remove the city’s firewall against China’s judicial system.

“We want to make sure that the One Country, Two Systems model still exists,” Mo said. “The fact that China is excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition arrangement back in 1997 is meant to be a firewall against China’s type of judiciary.”

While legal experts think bill’s passage wouldn’t immediately threaten Hong Kong’s judicial independence, it could put tremendous pressure on its judicial autonomy. Billy Li from the Progressive Lawyers Group said that there is a possibility that the Chinese government  could put pressure on Hong Kong’s judiciary whenever it turns down one of Beijing’s extradition requests. “The Chinese authority could impose political pressure on Hong Kong’s judiciary through various means,” Li said. “In other words, the law can be manipulated by Beijing.”

Solidarity, or beginning of an end?

Sunday’s protest saw family with young kids, elderly citizens, and student organizations all take part in the two-mile march. Many cited distrust of the Chinese government as the primary reason for attending Sunday’s protest. Andy Chu, a graphic designer in his early 30s, described the protest as a gambit that could force legislators to reveal how they really think about the bill.

“Hong Kong’s political power has always been controlled by a small group of elites, and normal citizens like us are merely taking it to the street to voice our opinions,” Chu said. “If the government decides to pass the bill through the legislative council forcefully, there is not much that we can do to stop it.”

While most in Hong Kong may agree that public protests don’t always bring about change, for some, like Kit Siu, a business consultant, showing solidarity is still important. “Protesting is one way for people to show that they have allies and are not alone,” Siu said.

To Lam Wing-kee, a prominent bookseller who fled to Taiwan in April due to fears that he would be extradited to mainland China, the bill’s passage would be a “death sentence” for Hong Kong. He thinks the only way to stop the government from passing the bill is for Hong Kong people to express their opposition loud and clear. Apart from publishing articles and joining seminars, Lam urges Hong Kong people to continue taking to the streets.

“Apart from expressing their opinions, there are not many ways for Hong Kong people to increase pressure on the Chinese government,” Lam said. “If the Hong Kong government insists on passing the controversial bill, it would be the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberty. Hong Kong people will be left with three choices: emigrate to another country, stay in Hong Kong and keep defending the island’s shrinking space for civil society, or stay in Hong Kong and remain silent forever.”

Avery Ng, a longtime activist and chairman of Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats, said the bill is the latest step in Beijng’s plan to turn Hong Kong into just another Chinese city. “I think the extradition bill is the Chinese government’s overarching tactic to tighten its control over Hong Kong,” Ng said. “This is basically part of its plan to rein in Hong Kong.”

Still, Ng thinks Hong Kong people should not overlook the fact that the island remains the only city in China that’s capable of gathering one million people for a public protest, and that Sunday’s turnout was proof that Hong Kong people are not ready to give up their rights.

“Hong Kong people are still upholding their values and trying to fight even though they don’t possess much influence over the politics,” Ng said. “[Sunday’s] protest will rejuvenate and reignite Hong Kong people’s hopes, something that was kind of lost after the Umbrella Movement in 2014. It also shows how Hong Kong truly values the power of protest and people.”

“The government’s proposals are grounded in rule of law”

The protest turned violent when riot police surrounded Hong Kong’s legislative council and clashed with protesters who stayed at the scene past midnight. Batons and pepper spray were used on protesters, who responded by hurling bottles and metal barricades at the police. An hour after the initial clash, stragglers were removed from the scene without much resistance.

China’s state-run China Daily published an editorial on Monday to defend the controversial bill, claiming that protesters have been misled by the opposition. “Some foreign forces are seizing the opportunity to advance their own strategy to hurt China by trying to create havoc in Hong Kong,” the editorial said.

The Hong Kong government issued a statement on Sunday arguing that the extradition bill is grounded in the rule of law and urging more scrutiny over the proposal. A government spokesperson said that the legislative council will resume a second reading of the bill on Wednesday, as originally scheduled.

“We urge the Legislative Council to scrutinize the bill in a calm, reasonable, and respectful manner to help ensure Hong Kong remains a safe city for residents and business,” the statement said.

The Hong Kong government emphasized that it has listened to the people’s concerns and responded through two rounds of concessions. “The Chief Executive [can’t] bypass the court to surrender to any requesting party, including the mainland. The government’s proposals are firmly grounded in the rule of law,” the government said through the statement.

Article originally appeared in supchina on 10 June 2019.