Hong Kong: no longer a borrowed place but still on borrowed time

June 06, 2019 08:02
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has repeatedly said she will not withdraw the proposed amendments to the extradition law. Photo: CNSA

This coming Sunday, June 9, will be a defining moment for Hong Kong. On that day we will know whose voice holds sway – the voice of the people or that of our government, whose leader was chosen by an election committee of 1,200 people.

The people will make its voice heard on Sunday with a protest march to oppose the government’s proposed extradition law with mainland China. How many will take part is anyone’s guess but with emotions running high against the extradition law, organizers are hoping for hundreds of thousands to send a powerful message.

The huge turnout two days ago for the 30th anniversary vigil of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown could be a precursor for this Sunday’s turnout. Organizers said at least 180,000 joined. Police put the figure at less than half that. Look at the TV images to decide for yourself.

In 2003, it took half a million for the government to abandon Article 23 national security legislation, which Hongkongers feared would erode their civil liberties. But today’s Hong Kong is nothing like that of 2003. Back then, we were just six years into the city’s reunification with China. Beijing adopted a hands-off policy to show the world it intended to keep its promise of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong.

We are now 22 years into reunification. Much has changed. Instead of a hands-off policy, the widely-held view is that Beijing’s hand is everywhere – from how much democracy we are allowed to what constitutes free speech and who can run for elections.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement for greater democracy drew tens of thousands at its early stage. But the people’s voice went unheard. The government insisted on a take-it-or-leave-it Beijing reform framework, which opposition lawmakers voted down in 2015 as fake democracy.

I have said before the opposition should have accepted Beijing’s 2014 offer of universal suffrage for the election of chief executives even though the offer required the vetting of candidates by a selection committee. It was imperfect democracy but a first step that even allowed one person, one vote instead of the chief executive being chosen by a committee of 1,200 people.

Accepting the framework would have built much-needed trust between the opposition and Beijing, opening the door for further democratic reforms. But the Umbrella Movement, followed by the rejection of the reform offer, hardened Beijing’s attitude towards Hong Kong. What little trust there was between the two sides vanished as Beijing tightened its grip to snuff out an independence movement that grew out of the Umbrella Movement.

Trust is now at the core of the widespread opposition against the government’s extradition bill. Not only is there very little trust between the opposition and Beijing, many Hong Kong people have zero faith in the mainland’s judicial process. They simply don’t believe that people extradited to the mainland will receive a fair trial. This lack of trust will not change regardless of how many times the government assures the public the human rights of those extradited will be protected.

To make matters worse, hardly anyone truly believes the government’s primary reason for expanding our extradition law is to extradite a Hongkonger who allegedly murdered his Hong Kong girlfriend in Taiwan. If that’s the main reason, a one-off arrangement with Taiwan would suffice. Taiwan has said it would agree to a one-off deal but made clear it would not accept any treaty that regarded it as a part of China.

Still, the government insists the extradition law must be widened to include all jurisdictions that lack a treaty with us, including the mainland. And it wants to rush the law through before the Legislative Council goes on summer break in July. It’s so anxious to get the law passed that big guns such as Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, Justice Security Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, and Security Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu have uncharacteristically gone on TV and radio shows multiple times to assure the public the government has no hidden motive in including a treaty with the mainland.

The turnout size on Sunday’s protest march will tell us if their assurances have succeeded. But unlike in 2003, the size this time won’t matter. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has repeatedly said she will not withdraw the proposed law. She has the votes to get it passed in our legislature, which is dominated by government-friendly lawmakers after opposition legislators were disqualified.

But at what price? If Sunday’s turnout is massive but she still ignores the people’s voice, she will send a dual message that she doesn’t care about public opinion and that there indeed is a hidden agenda to insisting on an extradition arrangement with the mainland. Already there is a widely-held belief Beijing will use the treaty to demand extradition of political opponents on false charges and that Lam would not dare refuse.

How true this is doesn’t matter. It’s the perception, and perception is reality. It’s a mystery to me why Lam is so determined to have an extradition treaty with Beijing when not only the international community but also the local business sector, the legal community, students, religious groups, housewives, and even the visually impaired have expressed concerns. Can even the blind see things she cannot?

Her political allies have said the extradition controversy is now at a point where a U-turn would humiliate not only Beijing, which has backed the extradition treaty, but also Lam because withdrawing the proposed law would undermine her authority to govern Hong Kong. That argument exposes a troubling disconnect with the psyche of Hong Kong people. If Sunday’s turnout is massive, withdrawing the proposed law would not only enhance her authority, it would help build trust with Beijing.

Famed author Richard Hughes published a 1968 book about Hong Kong being a borrowed place on borrowed time. Before the 1997 reunification, Hong Kong was indeed a British colony on borrowed time. Reunification means we are no longer a borrowed place but the guaranteed 50 years of no change after reunification means we are still on borrowed time until 2047.

Will Beijing renew one country, two systems in 2047? No one knows for sure. But there are already ample signs Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being redefined. Beijing has prioritized one country over two systems. Ramming through the extradition law against public opinion is a sure sign Hong Kong is living on borrowed time before it becomes just another mainland city.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.