Hong Kong extradition bill
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Police push through barricades against protesters on Wednesday. Photo: Sam Tsang

What is behind Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests?

  • Government’s divisive bill has prompted hundreds of thousands to take to the streets
  • Critics of bill say it could result in Hongkongers being sent to mainland China for trial, but the government says it is necessary

Hong Kong was gripped by chaos on Wednesday, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, as tens of thousands surrounded the city’s administrative centre to block lawmakers from debating the government’s controversial extradition bill.

Here are key things you need to know about Hong Kong and this bill.

Is Hong Kong part of China?

Hong Kong is a part of China with its own legal system, currency and civil liberties that do not exist in mainland China.

Before its handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years.

Under the “one country, two systems” principle, Beijing guaranteed Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy”, to last until 2047.

What is the bill about?

The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 was proposed by the Hong Kong government in February to allow the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong lacks an extradition deal, including the mainland, Taiwan and Macau.

Officials said the bill had to be passed as soon as possible so a murder suspect could be sent to Taiwan. Chan Tong-kai, 20, who is wanted on the self-ruled island for his girlfriend’s murder, was jailed for 29 months in April on related money-laundering charges. But he could be released as soon as October and be at liberty to flee the city.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused protesters’ demands to withdraw the bill. Photo: Winson Wong

Why is it causing so much division in Hong Kong?

Opposition to the extradition agreement has been snowballing ever since it was announced in February. Domestic and international concerns have been expressed about the possibility of politically motivated persecution and unfair trials on the mainland.

People have taken to the streets in huge numbers to protest the bill, including last Sunday, when, according to organisers, 1.03 million people marched. Police put the figure at 240,000.

Why are foreign governments weighing in?

The speaker of the US House of Representatives strongly condemned the bill and offered support to the protesters on Wednesday.

In a statement, Nancy Pelosi said the extradition proposal “chillingly showcases Beijing’s brazen willingness to trample over the law to silence dissent and stifle the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong”.

Pelosi explained in the statement that she was speaking up because the bill “imperils the safety of the 85,000 Americans living in Hong Kong”.

“The extradition bill imperils the strong US-Hong Kong relationship that has flourished for two decades,” she added.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has expressed hope that the protesters will come to an accord with officials, saying: “I’m sure they’ll be able to work it out. I hope they’re going to be able to work it out with China.”

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also responded to the protests in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

“Upholding the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, as set out in the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration, is vital to Hong Kong’s future success,” he said.

Ex-Hong Kong minister calls on Carrie Lam to withdraw extradition bill after unrest

But Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded that no country, organisation or person had the right to interfere with China’s domestic affairs.

“China strongly opposes the irresponsible and wrong remarks made by certain individuals in the US,” he adds.

Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has strongly condemned the bill. Photo: TNS

What happened on Wednesday?

An initially peaceful morning gathering at Tim Mei Avenue outside the legislature escalated as protesters rushed onto neighbouring thoroughfares, Lung Wo Road, Tim Mei Avenue, Queensway and Harcourt Road, blocking traffic and clashing with officers deployed there.

After multiple clashes in which police using rubber bullets and beanbag rounds for the first time against demonstrators, the riot squad managed to chase most of the protesters to Queensway, where hundreds regrouped outside the Pacific Place shopping centre and remained locked in a stand-off with police into the night.

More than 70 people were injured, including protesters, police officers and journalists.

Why is the Hong Kong government reluctant to shelve it?

Officials said that apart from dealing with the Taiwan murder case, the bill was also needed to plug the legal loophole that allowed suspects to avoid extradition to the island.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also made it clear on Wednesday that the government would not give in to the protesters’ demands.

The housewife mobilising stay-at-home mothers to strike down Carrie Lam’s fugitive plan

“If radical and violent means can achieve their aims, these scenes would only get worse, and definitely bring harm to Hong Kong. So I hope that order can be restored in the society as soon as possible, and I don’t want any more people to be injured in the riot,” she said.

Confrontations between police and protesters in Central on Wednesday night. Photo: Winson Wong

What happens next?

The violence on Wednesday prompted Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, who had set the stage for the bill to be passed by the pro-establishment majority in the legislature as early as next Thursday, to cancel Wednesday’s scheduled second reading.

All eyes will be on whether Leung and the pro-establishment camp return to Legco to convene the meeting on Thursday or Friday.