The government of Hong Kong will continue with plans to pass new extradition rules with China’s blessing, after Beijing dismissed a massive Hong Kong protest Sunday as the product of foreign interference.
“While we will continue to do the communication and explanation, there is very little merit to be gained to delay the bill. It will just cause more anxiety and divisiveness in society,” Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Monday. She pledged to clarify certain parts of the proposed legislative changes, which will ease the way for people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, and also promised regular reports about the implementation of the changes.
The bill is scheduled for a second reading in the city’s Legislative Council on Wednesday, with critics saying they intend to stage further protests.
Ms. Lam said the Sunday demonstration – with more than a million people on the streets, according to organizers, although police estimated the crowd as a quarter that size – showed that “people are still concerned,” but stood fast to her arguments that Hong Kong must have a way to extradite people to jurisdictions with which it does not have formal agreements.
“This bill is not about [the] mainland alone,” Ms. Lam said. “This bill is not initiated by the Central People's Government. I have not received any instruction or mandate from Beijing to do this bill. We were doing it and we are still doing it out of our clear conscience and our commitment to Hong Kong.”
But the proposed extradition rules have raised fears that Hong Kong is racing to bring its independent legal system into much greater proximity with that of China, where courts operate under the guidance of the Communist Party. Those in Hong Kong wary of mainland influence have already watched with worry as China has built a new bridge and high-speed rail links to the city, as President Xi Jinping moves quickly to more tightly integrate Hong Kong with neighbouring Chinese cities.
Beijing has offered stalwart support for the bill and for Ms. Lam herself, after protesters demanded her resignation.
“The Chinese government will firmly support the [Hong Kong] Special Administration Region government in amending the two ordinances,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday.
“We are firmly opposed to the wrong attempts by any external forces to interfere with the Hong Kong SAR’s legislative process and affairs.”
Mr. Geng dismissed the number of protesters, pointing instead to an effort by a pro-Beijing alliance that has gathered nearly more than 770,000 signatures in support of the extradition bill.
“That’s just the number we have at the moment, and it’s still rising,” he said. China’s Xinhua news agency described the Hong Kong protest, the largest in the city in decades, as “a public procession.” The demonstrations snaked through city streets, forming a line some three kilometres long. The event was largely peaceful, though it ended with hours of violent scuffling and injuries to both police and protesters.
On Monday, some in Hong Kong called for a new set of protests to begin late Tuesday night.
“We will fight till the end, by all means necessary. And I hope the liberal forces around the world can stand by us, Hong Kongers, for freedom from fear,” said Baggio Leung, a Hong Kong activist and politician.
“Many people, especially youngsters, got hurt by police, and plenty of them were arrested,” he said. “Only a win will make their effort not be wasted.”
In China, however, the protesters were dismissed as pawns in a foreign effort to undermine Beijing.
“It cannot be doubted that the United States is using Hong Kong as a bargaining chip in the Sino-U.S. game, and even using the means of destroying Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability as a way to curb China’s development,” the Global Times, a newspaper under the Communist Party, wrote in a Chinese-language commentary.
Canada has also spoken out against the extradition bill, issuing a joint statement with Britain in late May to express concern “about the potential effect of these proposals on the large number of Canadian and British citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.” Western chambers of commerce have also raised concern.
In Taiwan, meanwhile, President Tsai Ing-wen on Monday used the Hong Kong extradition debate to call for the Taiwanese people to reject the notion of “one country, two systems.” That formulation was designed to give Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy when it was handed over to Chinese control in 1997. Beijing has proposed a similar system for Taiwan.
“Once we accept ‘one country, two systems,’ we will lose our rights to defend freedom, democracy and human rights, as well as our rights to choose our own future,” Ms. Tsai wrote on Facebook.
In China, the Hong Kong extradition bill is seen as so politically sensitive that scholars who specialize in the region hung up on phone calls requesting comment. “I refuse to answer any question concerning the extradition law and protests,” one professor in Beijing said.
On China’s Twitter-like Weibo, censors scrubbed any mention of the Hong Kong protest outside state-sanctioned media. Chinese leadership “remains paranoid about potential large-scale protests,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s biggest historical demonstrations have also pointed to “major errors and mistakes made by the Communist Party,” he said, and the extradition bill “marks a significant milestone downhill for Hong Kong as a viable separate entity from the mainland.”
Still, the bill is widely expected to pass final reading by the end of the month.
It “is now a foregone conclusion,” Mr. Lam said.