Extradition bill sets off summer of discontent in Hong Kong

Widespread discontent: a protester in Hong Kong holding up a sign expressing displeasure with Chief Executive Carrie Lam's governance (Imgur)

Last Valentine’s Day, Hong Kong woman Poon Hiu-wing, 20, and her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai, 19, went to Taiwan for a romantic getaway. She never returned. Her body, along with that of her unborn child, was later found stuffed in a pink suitcase.

The killer was Chan, who strangled her and stuffed her body into the suitcase, which he later dumped in a thicket of bushes near a subway station in Taipei. The case attracted little attention in Taiwan. The gruesome details only started to emerge when Chan was interviewed by Hong Kong police a month later following a missing person’s report filed by the victim’s family. Chan admitted killing Ms Poon after a row where it was revealed that the child she was carrying did not belong to him. After disposing of the victim’s body, Chan withdrew money from her bank account, returned to Hong Kong and used her ATM card to draw out more cash to pay off his own debts. On the same day Chan confessed his crimes to the Hong Kong police, their counterparts in Taipei located Ms Poon’s decomposed body. Unfortunately, there exists no formal; agreement for the transfer of suspects from Hong Kong’s jurisdiction over to that of Taiwan. As such, Chan was only charged with money laundering based on what he did with Ms Poon’s bank account. He received a 29-month prison sentence in April this year, backdated to the day he was taken into police custody, meaning he could walk free next August.

To understand the relationship between Hong Kong and Taiwan, we need to look back at China’s messy history over the last 80 or so years. Inevitably, the People’s Republic of China will be involved as it is the source of the trouble that has recently beset Hong Kong in the aftermath of this particular murder. Taiwan has enjoyed de facto independence since the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to Taiwan and established themselves as a government in exile, keeping the name “Republic of China” in the hope that they could reunify peacefully with the mainland. However, the Communist-ruled mainland and the KMT-controlled Taiwan drifted further apart over the years as the latter embraced capitalism and cultivated good relations with the United States of America. The KMT lost their influence to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in recent years while a more hardline leader emerged in the mainland. Tensions between China and Taiwan had been around for decades, but in the last few years, the two sides look to be on a collision course with one another. The Communist regime in Beijing officially has a One China policy, which is followed by many of China’s trading partners in the West. This means limited recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state and seeing it as a region of China instead.

Widespread discontent: a protester in Hong Kong holding up a sign expressing displeasure with Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s governance (Imgur)

Hong Kong had been leased to the British following the Qing Dynasty’s defeat in the Opium War. Following the Communist takeover of the mainland, many people sought refuge in Hong Kong as it promised freedom. In those days life was hard but many managed to survive by starting their own businesses. As their businesses took off, they became materially better off and were able to enjoy a higher standard of living than those left behind in the mainland. The British introduced the Westminster system into the city as a form of administration. Their lease of Hong Kong expired in July 1997 and the city returned to the control of Beijing, who designated it as a Special Administrative Region. This meant Hong Kong would have more autonomy than all other Chinese provinces, under Deng Xiaoping’s “One country, two systems” principle. During the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong was something of a gateway to China for Western countries. When the city was handed over to Beijing’s control, it was promised that its economic and political systems would be guaranteed for 50 years after the transfer.

Following the rise of Xi Jinping as the paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China in the last few years, the central government has been increasingly tightening its control over the country’s restive regions. It has taken a hard line on Taiwan following the election of Tsai Ing-Wen as the island’s president. Tsai is a staunch supporter of independence, which does not sit well at all with the CCP in Beijing. At the same time, China has been sponsoring the infrastructure projects in third-world countries under the Belt and Road Initiative. This appears to be a move to isolate Taiwan as those countries that benefited from Chinese money will not longer be able to recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state. Beijing has also been quite heavy-handed with criticism of the current political system in Hong Kong by the city’s residents. Many allege that the CCP had been rolling back civil liberties in the city over the last few years, with the first major protests taking place in 2014. This marked the beginning of what became known as the Umbrella Revolution. One of the prominent leaders of this movement was teenager Joshua Wong. Scenes reminiscent of 1950s Singapore were all over Hong Kong as students staged strikes to show displeasure with the proposed electoral reforms put forward by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Their sticking point was that the Chief Executive should be directly elected by the people, not selected from a pool of candidates vetted by Beijing.

In the aftermath of the 2014 unrest, Wong was arrested and held for three hours on Friday, 16 January 2015, for his alleged involvement in offences of calling for, inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly. Several neighbouring countries denied him the right of entry after it emerged that activist groups in those countries invited him to speak at their rallies. He later founded the Demosisto party in 2016. He was nominated for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote democracy in Hong Kong.

In the wake of the murder of Poon Hiu-wing in Taiwan, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed a bill that would allow for the transfer of fugitives from the city to other locations in Greater China such as Taiwan, Macau and the mainland itself, which existing legislation did not provide for. This sparked widespread unease from a community already reeling from the disappearance of five anti-Beijing book sellers under suspicious circumstances. It was believed that Chinese officials had ordered the rendition of the five individuals between October and December 2015 and detained them on the mainland for several months. They were later made to confess to crimes they did not commit, reminiscent of what Singapore’s Internal Security Department did at the height of Operations Spectrum in 1987. Such actions by the authorities in Beijing were allegedly in violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law which the 1997 Constitution had set in stone. As such, critics of the proposed extradition bill feared it would be used against dissidents.

The backlash was severe. It could even rival the response to French President Emmanuel Macron‘s proposed tax on diesel fuel that sparked off widespread protests across the nation. Like the Yellow Vest movement, the Hong Kong protests happened due to the widespread discontent with the corrupt administration. The extradition bill amendments were the tipping point and nothing more. The reasons for Hong Kongers to protest were manifold, just like their French counterparts. The city had been experiencing a housing crisis for several years and the economy was showing signs of slowing down as mainland Chinese cities experienced a corresponding increase in fortunes. The protesters wanted the extradition bill repealed and Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step aside. Lam initially stood firm, authorising police to use brute force on protesters, whom she labelled as rioters. This added two more demands to the protesters’ list: to stop referring to them as rioters and and inquiry into possible police brutality. This was in addition to the previous two demands mentioned as well as the immediate release of all those detained in the course of the protests.

The legislature was trashed, and the city’s Chek Lap Kok Airport later came under siege. As the streets became more heavily policed and triad members used as extra muscle to maintain order in subway stations, protesters saw the airport as something of a safe space to hold their events. To the outside world, this was an alarming development. Several countries issued travel warnings to citizens planning to travel to Hong Kong. Qantas even deployed lower capacity aircraft for all flights bound for Chek Lap Kok. Even though Carrie Lam had backed down on the extradition bill, her detractors doubted her sincerity. Amid these developments, the Chinese military mobilised troops to the Hong Kong border, sparking international concerns that a repeat of the Tiananmen massacre was in the pipeline.

Although Joshua Wong was not involved in the early stages of the protest due to his incarceration, his former associates from the now-defunct Scholarism movement played a big part in it. However, this protest was best characterised as leaderless as there was no central figure mobilising people to take to the streets. Besides students and trade union members, professional organisations also joined in the protests. The displeasure with the proposed extradition bill as well as Carrie Lam’s leadership united people like never before. Such solidarity is sorely lacking in Australia, hence the federal government can implement drug testing for Newstart recipients and cashless debit cards for impoverished communities with relative ease.

The main catalyst for the recent Hong Kong protests appear to be a response to Beijing’s increasing authoritarianism under Xi Jinping. The extradition bill may well be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Indeed, there appear to be certain eerie parallels between present-day China and 1930s Nazi Germany. The Chinese have built concentration camps (albeit without the infamous gas chambers Auschwitz had) in Xinjiang for the local Muslim population. They have also been eyeing a forced reunification with Taiwan in a manner befitting of the Anschluss. Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia also appear to be drawn from the German ideal of Lebensraum, setting off jitters in Cambodia and the Philippines. The rest of the world need to be really woke when dealing with China as the last time world leaders were asleep at the wheel, Adolf Hitler became powerful and dangerous. What happened next is common knowledge. In fact, Xi may well be the reincarnation of Hitler for all we know. The CCP has shifted position so far to the right that it would make Hitler proud while simultaneously making Mao Zedong turn in his grave. It is likely that the Taiwanese are aware of this, hence many of them held rallies in support of Hong Kong protesters early on. Joshua Wong had also called on the Taiwanese government to throw its weight behind them and offer asylum to activists fleeing police brutality. A small group have also come to view United States president Donald Trump as something of a saviour. His administration is currently locked in a bitter trade dispute with Beijing. German chancellor Angela Merkel also weighed into the Hong Kong crisis, calling on Beijing to end the conflict peacefully during a state visit to China.

Perhaps the first step would be giving Taiwan the recognition it deserves as a sovereign nation. That way, it would be harder for fugitives to hide from Taiwan’s justice system as Taipei can easily extradite them on its own. Given the complexity of Hong Kong’s situation, it is all the more important to resolve this. Hong Kong carries its own unique baggage that no amount of fascist repression can whip it into shape. Maybe Trump can make it conditional that Beijing recognise Taiwan as a different country altogether in return for him dropping the trade sanctions. Other countries should also adopt a similar stance, such as putting diplomatic ties with China on hold until it agrees to grant independence to the Taiwanese. The only fly in the ointment would be the KMT, who still claim sovereignty over all of mainland China plus parts of Mongolia. Such thinking makes them a relic of the past and something of a fifth column of the CCP in Taipei.

Next thing would be making it possible for Hong Kong residents to run directly for office as Chief Executive, similar to how it is done for mayoral and local government elections in Australia. This means that candidates with grassroots experience will get to hold power, instead of a member of the privileged elite. Doing so is democratic and will ensure that the city’s reputation for freedom is preserved.

However, the immediate concern is to quell the protests that have raged on all summer long. Unfortunately, there may not be a peaceful solution to it. The people have been pushed into a corner and are fighting back viciously. The fallout will be nasty as all sides stand to lose. Using Chinese troops to restore order will result in innocent lives being unnecessarily taken. It would also confirm our worst suspicions that the CCP are worse than the Nazis. This means having to take out the CCP to keep peace in the region.