The people of Hong Kong have done the world a great service. In stunning protests last month that brought as much as a quarter of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people into the streets over the course of a single day, they defeated, at least temporarily, a proposed law that would allow extraditions to the mainland. In doing so, they also dealt a setback to one of the insidious tactics in Beijing’s global agenda to undermine democratic values and the rule of law. Today, the annual pro-democracy march marking the anniversary of Hong Kong’s July 1, 1997 return to mainland rule was overshadowed by protests at the Hong Kong Legislative Council building. Despite pro-democracy leaders’ efforts to dissuade them, protesters occupied and vandalized the chamber.
The extradition law (more precisely, amendments to existing Hong Kong ordinances on fugitives and mutual legal assistance) stewarded by Carrie Lam, Beijing’s appointed Chief Executive, would have given a veneer of legitimacy to the kinds of extrajudicial, state-sponsored kidnappings that Beijing has already carried out not only in the territory but also in other countries too weak or craven to prevent them.
In 2015, Chinese security agents seized five men associated with a Hong Kong publishing house and bookstore that sold books banned on the mainland, including critical and even scurrilous ones about Party leaders. In connection with Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, the Party is conducting “Operation Fox Hunt” to bring wealthy businessmen or officials who have fallen out of favor—and their assets—back to the mainland. In 2017, one of these, Xiao Jianhua, was reportedly captured on videotape being rolled out of Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel by security agents in a wheelchair with a sheet over his head. Others reportedly returned to Hong Kong in the hopes that it would offer them protection and even joined the anti-extradition marches.
Beijing has successfully coerced the return of dissidents, asylum seekers, and fugitives from countries where it commands extraordinary influence, particularly in Southeast Asia. In powerful democracies, however, it has encountered resistance.
Lam’s stated reason for the legislation, allowing extradition to Taiwan of a Hong Kong man who confessed to killing his girlfriend there in 2018, doesn’t explain why in the process the firewall between Hong Kong’s judicial system and the mainland’s should be breached. A more plausible, proximate cause was the American request in January this year for the extradition from Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive arrested there last December on charges related to Iran sanctions violations. The extradition legislation appeared in Hong Kong in February. Even the threat of legalized extradition against either the large expatriate American business community or visitors to Hong Kong would provide leverage Beijing could use against the United States regarding Huawei, Taiwan, or other matters. (Beijing has retaliated against Canada by charging two of its citizens with espionage, and the Canadian Foreign Ministry has acknowledged an even larger number of detentions.) If the law were adopted as drafted by the government, it would make virtually anyone in Hong Kong, whether a long-term resident or a traveler passing through, vulnerable to extradition to the mainland, where the party, not law, rules supreme.
For now, the extradition effort in Hong Kong is stuck in limbo. Lam has suspended proceedings on it and reluctantly apologized for introducing it. With Beijing backing Lam, the protestors’ calls for her resignation have been superseded by demands for an independent inquiry into the police and for dropping all charges against protesters, such as those arrested at hospitals when they sought treatment for wounds and illness incurred by rubber bullets and tear gas. Pierre Chan, a Hong Kong doctor who represents the medical profession in the Hong Kong Legislative Council, revealed evidence that the Hospital Authority collaborated with the police to identify patients suffering from injuries caused by rubber bullets.
As an entrepôt, Hong Kong retains an unusually intimate political culture, with politicians frequently known by nicknames. Carrie Lam’s nickname is “777” for the number of votes she received in the Beijing directed “Election Committee” of 1,200 that chooses the chief executive. (The number also lends itself to a vulgar homophonous pun in Cantonese, to the delight of some of Lam’s critics.)
Analysis of Lam’s actions and her fate have the quality of a parlor game. Is her political career in Hong Kong finished now? Was she acting on her own in pushing the extradition proposal or at Beijing’s behest? According to Steve Tsang, an historian of China and Hong Kong at the University of London, the answer is a little of both. “Beijing really just wanted to make sure that all the people subject to Operation Fox Hunt could be brought back to China without going to the trouble of kidnapping them. If it worked, Beijing would have been fine with it, but it didn’t work.” As June 4, the 30th anniversary of the massacre of democracy protesters in and around Tiananmen Square, inched closer, and trade talks with the United States grew more intense, the timing of the legislation became a problem, despite its being endorsed by two Politburo standing committee members.
Whatever Lam’s ultimate political fate, she will at the very least enjoy the generous pension of a Hong Kong civil servant, and if she remains loyal to the end, perhaps also a sinecure in one of Beijing’s united front organizations. Such perks and plum jobs keep Hong Kong’s Beijing loyalists in line. Hundreds of Hong Kong pro-Beijing grandees have been summoned to the Central Liaison Office (CLO), which coordinates the Party’s media and united front efforts in the territory, over the past few weeks to get their marching orders, dutifully emerging afterward to parrot the Communist Party line. The CLO is the successor to the Xinhua office in Hong Kong. Tung Chee-hwa—the first Beijing-appointed Hong Kong Chief Executive, under whom the first of Hong Kong’s mass protests broke out in opposition to plans to implement an anti-subversion law—is a delegate to a major CCP united front organization. Tung currently chairs the U.S. China Exchange Foundation, which has funded American think tanks and university projects and journalism.
“One county, two systems”—the notion that Hong Kong could exercise “a high degree of autonomy” except in defense and foreign affairs—never meant what the West believed it did, but things have gotten worse under Xi Jinping as he has launched an ambitious bid for global leadership.
The Umbrella movement protests of 2014 were a turning point. Protesters occupied Hong Kong’s downtown business district for 11 weeks in response to Beijing’s refusal to allow democratic elections for Hong Kong Chief Executive. Beijing was willing to open up voting for the top job to all Hong Kong people but would only allow candidates who had been approved by the Party.
The demonstrations laid bare the change that has taken place under PRC rule. According to Tsang, the British colonial government and the Beijing-appointed government drew different lessons from their lack of accountability. The British, aware of their democratic legitimacy deficit, approached the task of managing demonstrations by trying to win cooperation. “It would have been unthinkable in the last two or three decades of colonial rule for the police to be sent out in riot gear in the first instance,” but, says Tsang, “since 1997, Hong Kong police officers mostly coordinated their training and experience and exchanges not with the British police forces, but with the Chinese. And that would cause a significant change in how the mindset works.” The result was the opposite of what the government sought: “Once the people saw the footage of police using force, you have hundreds of thousands going out in the streets.” And all of this merely describes what was going on in public view. Much more goes on behind the scenes. In 2017, Reuters reported on the recruitment of retired Hong Kong police to carry out mainland security agency operations in the territory.
Other once-unthinkable developments followed: politically motivated trials of protest leaders, ideological litmus tests for the legislature and public university posts, a ban on a tiny pro-independence party on national security grounds, and expulsion of a foreign journalist for hosting a talk by its leader. This year, Beijing began enforcing mainland law inside a portion of the West Kowloon terminal for the high-speed train to Guangzhou.
In ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the return to Chinese rule, on July 1, 2017, Xi stressed the role of Hong Kong as “part and parcel” of his ambitious plan for the national rejuvenation and the achievement of the China dream, a “pregnant concept that fuses the struggle for success, the recovery of past glory, and the erasure of historic humiliation in order to prepare for China’s return to centrality not just in Asia but globally.”1 Xi spoke of the “suffering,” “humiliation,” and “sorrow” brought about by China’s defeat at the hands of foreign powers in the 19th century. The ritual rubbing of salt in old wounds is a predictable prelude to the extolling of the Party’s achievements. Indeed, Xi went on to claim, “It was not until the Communist Party of China led the Chinese people to victory in a dauntless and tenacious struggle for national independence and liberation and founded New China that the Chinese people truly stood up and blazed a bright path of socialism with distinctive Chinese features.”
PRC leaders regularly nurse grievances over the colonization of Hong Kong and the loss, during the self-proclaimed “century of humiliation,” of other large swaths of territory under the last dynasty. Recovering former domains has been a top priority policy since the PRC’s establishment in 1949. Xinjiang and Tibet, which the PLA invaded in the late 1940s and 1950s, were the first targets.
Rather than be satisfied with the territory’s return, the Party is pressing Hong Kong into the service of its assault on democracy beyond China’s borders. Last year, not for the first time, Hong Kong security officials traveled to Xinjiang to study counterterror methods. John Lee, the Secretary for Security, reported that the delegation saw only “humane” treatment and nothing “untoward” in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where more than a million Uighurs have been incarcerated in detention and reeducation camps. He said that his bureau cannot be “selective” in its study of methods, but also that they did not visit the camps.
Beijing has also put forward a former Hong Kong Commissioner of Police, Andy Tsang, as its choice to run the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. If Tsang takes over UNODC, he can play a part in the Party’s efforts, catalogued by Human Rights Watch, to extend its influence at the UN, including the advance of alternative norms, and co-opt and coerce governments to adopt Beijing’s litmus tests on Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. This might help the PRC compensate for the strange fall of Meng Hongwei, a former top public security official, whose appointment as president of Interpol was intended to help Beijing normalize a growing role in the leadership of international organizations. Meng was detained in China in 2018 and this year was arrested, and plead guilty to taking bribes.
If the June protests present a problem for Xi’s plans to project power and influence in such ways, it is an even bigger blow to Beijing’s Taiwan strategy. The “one country, two systems” model was originally designed with Taiwan in mind, and Beijing expected that Taiwan would return to the motherland before Hong Kong. In 1978, PRC leaders saw their chance. President Carter abruptly broke ties with Taipei, revoking the defense pact and withdrawing troops. PRC leaders were delighted. “If Taiwan would only bow to Beijing’s sovereignty,” writes Robert Cottrell, “then the Beijing government would promise to concede a very high degree of administrative autonomy to the Taipei authorities.” Instead, the U.S. Congress rebuked Carter and passed the Taiwan Relations Act, establishing unofficial ties and committing the United States to peace and stability in the western Pacific region.
It is at present inconceivable that Taiwan’s people would voluntarily come under PRC rule. They have developed a distinct Taiwanese national identity, rooted in democracy and increasingly divorced from the ethnic divisions between mainlanders and islanders that long marked Taiwan’s politics. Instead, the protests in Hong Kong have become a factor in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election, which the unification-leaning Kuomintang (KMT) had been seen as likely to win. The incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favors independence, has repeatedly expressed support for Hong Kong’s protesters. No candidate wants to be seen as willing to contemplate a similar fate for Taiwan. PRC authorities are keen to block ties between Taiwanese and Hong Kong democracy activists, writes Brian Hioe, who reported on the protests this month: “Perhaps Hong Kong, in seeking to save itself, has saved Taiwan. This would be another instance in which Hong Kong and Taiwan’s destinies remain interlinked. But what I want to avoid at all costs is Taiwan advancing forward on the basis of Hong Kong’s demise.”2
Like Taiwan’s people, Hong Kong’s are developing a distinct civic identity. Last week, a polling project based at the University of Hong Kong released a survey showing a record high number of people identifying as “Hong Kongers,” and a record low identifying themselves as Chinese. However, Hong Kong has neither the Taiwan Strait nor the U.S. Seventh Fleet to protect it. Instead, it relies on an American law: the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act, which was adopted in 1992 well before the handover and hasn’t been updated since, despite Beijing’s encroachments. At the time, its drafters hoped that Beijing would value Hong Kong’s rule of law and be deterred by the prospect of Hong Kong’s loss of special status in U.S. law if it were not judged “sufficiently autonomous.” Despite the obvious erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and Beijing’s increasingly overt interference, the United States has been understandably reluctant to make that finding, because the sanctions it would trigger would hurt the people of Hong Kong rather than the responsible officials in both the Hong Kong government and central government. Some members of Congress are considering how to shift the penalties to those responsible.
That’s a promising start, and any revision of Hong Kong policy must reflect the PRC’s evolution from an economically weak, inward looking country deferential to American leadership to an aggressive, wealthy nation mounting a direct challenge to the U.S.-led liberal-democratic order.
Hong Kong’s people have no illusions about the future. “They may retreat for the moment, but the CCP is not going to forget or forgive,” says Lee Cheuk Yan, a free trade union leader and longtime pro-democracy politician. “The Hong Kong people will be made to pay, but the fight will go on.”
Beijing may bide its time before retaliating, as it has in the past. In the meantime, it faces a new, even younger group of citizens committed to the survival of Hong Kong as a free society. The “leaderless” style of the protests—a necessity given that several leaders of the 2014 protests were in jail—marks a new, fluid style and a security savviness. The anti-extradition protests have again changed the complexion of democracy activism, leading to greater cooperation, self-effacement, and solidarity than before. Charles Mok, a pro-democracy legislator, told me of a new saying among the protesters: “Brother, we are all going to climb the hill, you climb your way, I’ll climb my way.” It means, he said, “We do not criticize each other, we know we still depend on each other’s support. Common goal, common enemies, different tactics.”
The G-20 meetings in Osaka passed with no sign of support for Hong Kong from the United States. While Beijing readies its response, Washington should make it clear that the survival of the rule of law in Hong Kong is part and parcel of answering the PRC’s challenge to liberal democracy around the world.