When about 500,000 people marched in protest on July 1, 2003 against national security legislation, known as Article 23, a stunned Hong Kong government withdrew the proposed law. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the security secretary at the time, promptly announced her resignation after the mass protest targeted her for trying to push through a law that many felt would rob them of their civil liberties.
Hong Kong’s financial secretary at the time, Antony Leung Kam-chung, followed suit hours later by announcing he too would quit after being derided during the protest march for alleged evasion of a new car tax for his luxury Lexus. Less than two years after those tumultuous events, the city’s chief executive at the time, Tung Chee-hwa, also resigned. Many believe Beijing fired him.
The mass protest of 2003, one of the largest in Hong Kong’s history, showed what people power could do. Public opinion forced three highly unpopular top officials from their jobs. A decade later, in September 2012, people power triumphed again when Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive at the time, scrapped plans for national education in schools after tens of thousands of protestors besieged government headquarters, accusing Beijing of trying to brainwash schoolchildren.
But that was the last time people power succeeded in reversing controversial government policies. In September 2014, exactly two years after the government buckled under public pressure to withdraw national education, one of Hong Kong’s most pivotal political events took place when democracy supporters occupied key districts on both sides of the harbor.
Occupy Central, which later morphed into the Umbrella Revolution, drew tens of thousands at its early stages. Protestors demanded full democracy instead of a Beijing framework that would screen chief executive candidates. But instead of caving in to people power this time, the police fired tear gas at the start of the uprising.
The government, with full backing from Beijing, stood firm throughout the 79-day occupation. Police eventually cleared the occupiers using court injunctions. Beijing did not give an inch of ground, making clear its framework for political reforms was the only one on offer. That position stands to this day.
Executive Councilor Bernard Charnwut Chan recently told the BBC that Occupy Central failed because the public did not support it. He is wrong. Most Hong Kong people support full democracy. They just grew weary of the lengthy occupation of key commercial districts, and the violent tactics some occupiers used.
Hong Kong today is grappling with another political bombshell that many say they fear even more than the failed 2003 Article 23 legislation. It is a highly controversial proposal by the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to have a case-by-case extradition treaty with places that do not yet have such agreements with Hong Kong, including mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan.
Lam put forward this bombshell proposal after a Hong Kong man accused of murdering his Hong Kong girlfriend in Taiwan fled back here. Taiwan wants him returned to face justice, but sending him back would require an extradition treaty. The government used this as a reason to propose extradition treaties with mainland China, Macau, and other places as well.
I have said before I do not know if Lam is under Beijing’s orders to include mainland China so that Taiwan would not be seen as a separate country or if she is second-guessing Beijing. In any case, Taiwan has made clear it will not accept any treaty that makes it appear it is a part of China.
Aside from Taiwan’s position, Lam’s proposal to include the mainland has also raised alarm bells in Hong Kong not only among pro-democracy and human rights groups but also the foreign and local business sectors and even some pro-government political parties. They are all spooked by the same thing – the mainland’s judicial system is so politically controlled that fair trials are impossible.
The American Chamber of Commerce, the European Union, the US government, and various US Congressional committees have warned Hong Kong’s image as a trusted international business center could be ruined if Lam pushed ahead with a mainland extradition treaty. Hong Kong’s opposition has repeatedly asked why Lam is suddenly determined to have a treaty with the mainland even though the government couldn’t agree to one before and after the handover because the two judicial systems are so different.
A few weeks back, thousands marched to protest an extradition treaty with mainland China. Organizers said 12,000 people joined but the police said it was half that number. Compared to the 500,000 turnout against Article 23 legislation, the estimated 100,000 against national education, and the mass Occupy Central uprising, a 12,000 turnout is miniscule.
There is a general consensus in the opposition camp that people power no longer works after the failure of Occupy Central. That’s why protests nowadays draw tiny crowds. But even though 12,000 is not a lot, it’s the highest for recent protests. That shows ordinary Hong Kong people really fear an extradition treaty with the mainland.
If you add that to the concern of Hong Kong’s local business sector, foreign chambers of commerce, the European Union, the US government and Congress, and local pro-government political parties, it is clear Lam is facing a real dilemma. She has watered down her proposal to exclude some white-collar crimes but the business community is not appeased. Lam now has to decide whether she wants to serve her own ego and Beijing or pro-business political parties, the opposition, the international community, and ordinary Hong Kong people.
It’s a tough choice and I sympathize with her. It’s not easy being a Hong Kong chief executive whose job is to serve two masters – Hong Kong people and Beijing – whose interests sometimes conflict. But people power involving an extradition treaty with the mainland is not measured only in the number of people who protest in the streets. Our government also needs to heed the voices of the business sector and international community. Will Carrie Lam listen?
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