Francis Moriarty: Protests put heat on China, US

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong are massing in large numbers to challenge Beijing's latest effort at bringing the former British colony under tighter control. The demonstrations directly challenge China's president, Xi Jinping, who was behind the forcible quashing of previous mass demonstrations there.

The latest protests are also putting pressure on Washington to show support for Hong Kong at the same time that the Trump administration is in a dispute with Beijing over both trade and China's military expansionism. One of the voices calling for action is that of Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, longtime China critic and supporter of Hong Kong's autonomy. Hong Kong's pro-democracy forces want Washington to back up its support for the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty spelling out the high degree of autonomy promised after the territory's 1997 return to China.

Popular anger toward Beijing has been building over some time and is reaching a crescendo.

Consider just the past few days:

On Tuesday, June 4, a candlelight vigil marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre drew an estimated 130,000 people. That annual event, remembering the military's 1989 crushing of pro-democracy protests in the heart of the Chinese capital, is also seen as a barometer of discontent with a Hong Kong administration increasingly under Beijing's thumb.

EXTRADITION BILL

On Sunday, June 7, more than a million people jammed Hong Kong's downtown streets and clogged subway lines in a show of massive opposition to legislation that would permit fugitives wanted by China to be extradited across the border, where they would face trials before courts that are under political control.

The Hong Kong government says it has built safeguards into the legislation, including a role for the local courts. These safeguards have not found political traction — a fact underscored by a march by some 6,000 Hong Kong lawyers against the extradition proposal.

There are sound reasons for worry.

Chinese courts have no power to review laws. Under the constitution, the judiciary is not independent. It is an arm of the executive branch responsible for implementing laws. Until now, Hong Kong has barred extradition to China. (The city was sensitized on this point in 2015, when Chinese agents kidnapped some Hong Kong booksellers who were secreted to the mainland and later appeared in confessional videos. This past April, one of them — fearing for his safety under the extradition proposal — fled Hong Kong for safety in Taiwan).

Sunday's demonstration was the largest protest there since 2003, when a half-million people marched against proposed national security legislation. The 2003 turnout prompted Beijing to eventually pull the plug on the territory's first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. That proposed legislation was shelved and there is still no schedule for its reintroduction.

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Then came this past Monday, when police began pushing back protesters — many of them young — in order to cordon off an area around the legislature and the adjacent government complex.

This is the same space that in 2014 was the center of a 79-day occupation, largely by student-age protesters who had camped out there, paralyzing a large of part of the city's commercial center. They were objecting to Beijing's highly restrictive plan for a promised democracy that would have allowed Hong Kong people to vote for their chief executive, but only after the candidates had been vetted and found acceptable by China.

This time police took the initiative. Online videos show officers entering nearby fast food shops, lining young people up against the wall and checking their identification.

But the crowds are growing and, at this writing, local radio reports that thousands have begun fighting back.

Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, insists that the extradition legislation is being introduced as scheduled. Protests by opponents of the bill will occur both inside the legislative chamber and outside in the streets. The debate could last days.

Passage of the bill is all but assured, given the majority controlled by pro-government legislators, many of them chosen through indirect elections from among Beijing-controlled business, labor and professional groupings.

SOCIAL, POLITICAL ROOTS

Hong Kong has never had an agreement on extradition with the mainland in part because China's laws include the death penalty, which Hong Kong banned many years ago. China also has a number of other Draconian laws that have no counterpart in Hong Kong law.

The proposal at issue would allow the transfer of fugitives to any jurisdiction with which Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement, including China, Taiwan and Macau. Any request would be looked over by Hong Kong's lawyers for compliance with the law and the decision could be reviewed by the local courts. The ultimate decision would rest with the chief executive. The Hong Kong government says the legislation is not aimed specifically at the mainland.

Local discontent with Beijing's growing presence has social as well as political roots. There is a widespread feeling that local people are losing their cultural identity under the steady influx of mainland immigrants, who are criticized for overwhelming shopping areas, pushing up rents and showing little regard for local customs.

When more than a million people take to the streets, many governments would pay heed. But China under Xi may be a different story. These events run a risk of not ending well.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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