16 June 2019

What to Watch for as the Hong Kong Protests Unfold

What Happened

On June 12, Hong Kong's legislature delayed debate on a controversial bill that would allow citizens to be extradited to mainland China for criminal trials. The delay comes shortly after hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong took to the streets to rally against the government's recent decision to bypass a standard committee review to accelerate the bill's passage, which would add mainland China, Macau and Taiwan to a 20-country extradition list. Solidarity protests were also held in cities across the world on June 9, including in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.

Despite the backlash, however, the government is still expected to resume the debate period and hold a vote on the bill in the coming weeks. In the meantime, demonstrations will likely continue and potentially escalate as the government keeps pushing forward with the law, fueled by fears that it could open up Hong Kong's judicial system to Beijing's political interference.

Why It Matters

At the heart of the public anxiety is that the bill's proposed changes risk further eroding Hong Kong's long-cherished autonomy and rule of law. Hong Kong's government has already tried to accommodate such concerns by putting in more stringent requirements than existing extradition agreements with other countries, as well as exempting those facing political charges or the death penalty. And, in response to criticism from the business community, the latest draft of the bill also exempts extradition from nine criminal offenses. These include tax evasion, security and futures trading, unlawful computer use, and transgressions of import and export laws — leaving the law limited largely pursuant to criminals accused of violent or sexual crimes.

However, these limits have done little to assuage the concerns of Hong Kong citizens and foreign businesses, given China's poor human rights record and opaque judicial system. Many still fear that these safeguard measures will be insufficient — especially because of Beijing's proven appetite for arresting foreigners or dissidents without judicial backing, as evidenced by the unexpected arrests of both Chinese-born Canadian billionaire Xiao Jianhua in 2017 and booksellers in Hong Kong in 2015.

The success of the protests against the Hong Kong government's proposed extradition bill will largely depend on how the movement evolves in the days ahead, as well as the reactions of China and the United States.

In theory, Hong Kong courts have the power to vet extradition requests. The real question, however, is whether a Beijing-appointed leader and Hong Kong's court can resist Chinese pressure. Some commentators have suggested that the Hong Kong government make further concessions, such as putting the onus on prosecutors (not the accused) to prove accusations are not politicized. Such amendments, however, would likely do little to dampen the protesters' momentum given their enduring distrust of China's rule.
What to Watch For

That said, there's still a chance that the Hong Kong government could be swayed to shelve the bill completely, as it did with the controversial National Security Bill in 2003. However, pro-Beijing lawmakers have the legislative majority needed to pass the extradition bill, so the likelihood of that happening will largely depend on the government's will. In the coming weeks we will be watching the following:

Protests' Momentum. The protests are slated to escalate if the legislature resumes the debates or pushes forward the vote, which was initially scheduled for June 20. But demonstrations will likely endure well beyond that. The July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong's independence from the United Kingdom, for one, will provide citizens with another rallying cry regardless of the bill's fate. By mobilizing not only massive numbers but a wide breadth of social classes, unions and prominent public figures, the current demonstrations are already a clear departure from the lackluster protest activity seen against Hong Kong's government in the last three years. Continued demonstrations could thus dramatically raise the political stakes for the Hong Kong government, and could even yield a meaningful challenge to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her administration. For protesters, maintaining organizational strength and internal cohesion will thus be key to their success in persuading the government to reconsider or scrap the extradition bill, as will avoiding violence, business disruptions or an all-out political uprising.

Business Disruption. Protests so far have remained largely peaceful. The movement's main organizer, the Civil Human Rights Front, also has a demonstrated record of carrying out peaceful protests each year on the anniversary of Hong Kong's independence. However, a hardening of the Hong Kong government's position on the bill could encourage more radical protesters to go beyond the organizer's will and escalate their tactics. This could include attacks on key government and commercial buildings, or installing roadblocks. Stakes for Hong Kong's government are equally high if security forces engage in a severe crackdown on protesters. It will also be important to monitor the debate among foreign businesses in gauging the extradition law's potential impact on Hong Kong's business competitiveness and their business activity.

China's Position. The massive protests in Hong Kong have placed Beijing in an uncomfortable position. It is unclear whether Beijing actually pushed for the recent introduction of the extradition bill, which was first discussed in the wake of the 1997 handover. Some top-level Chinese officials have endorsed the bill, with Vice Premier Han Zheng saying in May that it would "strengthen the city's judicial system." But the backlash has showcased just how deep Hong Kong citizens' concerns about autonomy run, as well as their distrust of China's One Country, Two Systems policy after its reunification — leading Beijing to worry about how its political loyalists in Hong Kong are handling the issue and the mounting protests.

Given the sensitivity of its role in Hong Kong and the risk of stoking public fears, Beijing may hesitate to exert overt influence or publicize its position. Indeed, it has numerous political options behind the scenes short of open interference. However, serious disruptions or direct challenges to the Hong Kong government and the chief executive herself could compel Beijing to respond by either cementing a public position in support of the bill and Lam or, alternatively, by influencing her administration to reverse course.

China will be particularly sensitive to any signs of foreign interference in the protests. Beijing already fears that Hong Kong's position as a hub for foreign organizations, as well as fleeing political dissidents, risk challenging its own political system and influence. And these concerns have only been deepened by the United States' perceived current strategy to contain China's global influence.

With this in mind, it will be key to watch if Beijing moves to either crack down on foreign nongovernmental organizations and media on the mainland suspected of links or pressure the Hong Kong government to do the same. Beijing will be particularly sensitive to any links to Taiwan, as visits by Hong Kong protest leaders in the past have fueled Beijing's concerns about brewing pro-independence schemes among its administrative regions.

The U.S.'s Response. Concerns that the proposed law could subject foreign individuals and businesses to unfair extradition while undermining Hong Kong's unique status have already compelled several foreign governments to respond. However, the U.S. response will be key to monitor.

Washington currently treats Hong Kong as a special customs territory separate from mainland China under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, which a State Department review reaffirmed this year. The proposed extradition law has spurred calls to reexamine this special status from individual members of Congress, who have promised to do so if the extradition bill passes. While it is unclear how far-reaching this reexamination would be, there's a chance it could subject Hong Kong exports to U.S. tariffs against China. Such a move would risk destabilizing Hong Kong's peg to the U.S. dollar and jeopardize visa access for Hong Kong passport holders.

Hong Kong's special status has been the foundation for continued U.S. influence and benefits from trade with the city-state. Undermining or revoking this status could erode Washington's leverage within Hong Kong and could also see opposition leaders blamed for the economic repercussions. Additionally, the U.S. trade surplus with Hong Kong means that imposing tariffs risks countervailing tariffs that could hurt U.S. exports. For this reason, Washington will tread carefully in revoking or undermining Hong Kong's special status. However, it will be important to watch if Congress starts actually moving forward with attempts to alter the Hong Kong trade policy, which the White House might ultimately veto out of strategic concerns. It will also be key to see whether the United States resorts to less sweeping measures to pressure the administration in Hong Kong and Beijing, including targeted sanctions and visa restrictions.

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