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Extradition and independence: What’s behind the continued protests in Hong Kong

More than 100,000 people took part in the seventh week of mass protests in Hong Kong.

A Hong Kong man holds a sign amid a large group of protesters on a Hong Kong street.
A protester during the Hong Kong demonstrations on July 21, 2019.
Laurel Chor/AFP/Getty Images

Ongoing protests continued in Hong Kong on Sunday in a demonstration that saw tens of thousands of protestors defy police orders and march to government buildings. What began as a peaceful protest ultimately turned violent Sunday night as protesters and police clashed and a white-clad masked crowd attacked protesters.

The day’s protest — the seventh in a series of demonstrations that have taken place in Hong Kong every weekend since early June — was staged to make citizens’ displeasure with their city’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, known and to call for an investigation into police action at protests.

The demonstrations began as a challenge to legislation that would allow extradition to mainland China; critics feared the bill would allow Chinese officials to detain anyone seen as a threat. Debate on the bill was postponed indefinitely due to the protests, but the demonstrations have continued as a platform for citizens to push back against what they call “police brutality” at the protests; Lam’s dismissal of protesters as rioters and “stubborn children;” and Beijing’s growing influence in the city’s politics.

Sunday’s protest — which included around 430,000 people according to protestors and around 138,000 according to police — saw demonstrators expressing this discontent with signs reading “LIAR,” “No excuse Carrie Lam,” “No extradition to China,” and “Stop police brutality.”

The group followed a route outlined by authorities for much of the protest, but as the march reached the legislative district Sunday afternoon, thousands of protesters overwhelmed barricades and continued toward government buildings. While in the area, some protesters broke away to stand outside the police headquarters chanting “shame.”

Others continued on; by Sunday night, a group had reached the office of Beijing’s liaison to the city. They covered the office’s seal with eggs and black ink.

The seal of the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong after being defaced by angry protesters.
Vivek Prakash/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters in the government area were followed closely by riot police, who responded to them by firing multiple rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd.

As the protests wound down and demonstrators returned home, violence escalated as unknown assailants wearing white attacked the protesters, injuring at least eight people and leading to at least one train station being shuttered. It remains unclear whether the white-clad crowd (protesters usually wear black) support Beijing or had other reasons for attacking the protesters.

How the Hong Kong protests began

Weeks of massive protests began in early June after hundreds of thousands of people flooded Hong Kong’s streets in opposition to a bill that would allow criminal extradition to the Chinese mainland.

Organizers estimated more than 1 million people took part in the first protest — a number that, if accurate, would mean around one-seventh of the city’s population participated.

Hong Kong has operated as a “special administrative region” of China since 1997, when it was transferred to the country after more than 150 years as a British colony. In a model known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong, which has long had a significant pro-democracy faction, retains its own political and legal systems but is under Chinese sovereignty. This arrangement was meant to last until 2047.

But that independence is under threat in the eyes of many Hongkongers. Ben Bland, a Hong Kong expert at the Lowy Institute in Australia, told Vox’s Alex Ward, “In recent years, the Hong Kong government has disqualified elected lawmakers, banned activists from running for office, prohibited a political party, jailed pro-democracy leaders, expelled a senior foreign journalist, and looked the other way when Beijing kidnapped its adversaries in Hong Kong.”

The Chinese government has also been working to tamp down pro-democracy efforts within the city, Ward reported: “At China’s direction, the Hong Kong government in recent years has quashed the city’s democratic movement, blocked opposition candidates from running for elected office, and put down nearly all protest movements.”

The extradition legislation was introduced amid this atmosphere and was seen by its critics as a continuation of that trend. As Vox’s Eric Kleefeld explained:

The legislation, sponsored by Hong Kong’s current pro-Beijing government, would empower officials to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether to extradite wanted criminal suspects to stand trial in China itself. The bill would also require Hong Kong to extradite suspects to jurisdictions it lacks extraditions agreements with.

Government officials have promised the new law would not be used against people facing religious or political persecution, but Hongkongers fear China will not abide by that promise. They also worry citizens will suffer from arbitrary detention and point to allegations that Chinese officials use enhanced interrogation techniques as a reason for caution. Business leaders further fear that should the proposal become law, foreign interest in investment in Hong Kong will cool, and that some companies may even be forced to leave.

Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, argued the legislation was needed to ensure prosecution is possible in instances in which locals commit crimes in China or Taiwan, such as a recent case of a man who was suspected of murdering his girlfriend while on vacation. Under the country’s extradition accords, the man could not be sent from Taiwan to Hong Kong for prosecution.

But protesters maintain the potential risk of Beijing using the policy to quash dissent — including the sort of dissent the protests themselves represent — outweighs any benefit the legislation might bring.

Why the protests continue: The extradition bill was suspended, not withdrawn

Shortly after the protests began, Lam apologized and promised to “indefinitely suspend” the extradition legislation.

“This has led to controversies, disputes, and anxieties in society,” Lam said, according to the BBC. “For this I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong.”

Because Lam suspended but did not officially withdraw the bill, lawmakers could still bring it back and act upon it before the end of the year, something protesters fear will happen. That’s why protestors see Lam’s suspension of the legislation as small comfort.

“She is trying to delay and hope Hong Kong people forget,” Tim, a 26-year-old finance professional in Hong Kong who has protested the bill, told Vox’s Jen Kirby via WhatsApp.

Protesters in Hong Kong during the demonstrations on July 21, 2019.
Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Demonstrators say the fight must continue, as what they’ve accomplished so far — suspension instead of withdrawal — is not enough.

As Billy, a 29-year-old UK expat from Hong Kong, told Kirby: “Not much has been achieved apart from the delay in legislation of a law that is threatening the existence of Hong Kong.”

As protests have continued, opponents to the bill have had their concerns grow. Many argue the police have been overly violent in their response to protesters, and others claim the death of a protester has not been properly addressed by the government.

Lam has signaled no plans to acquiesce to demands to step down; and although the latest protests have not been quite as large as the first, protesters similarly have shown no signs of backing down. As their list of grievances grows and as worries over Beijing’s influence over the city increase, protesters are likely to continue to take to the streets en masse, growing bolder as they do so.

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