Dhanada Kanta Mishra
realised something significant had taken place when I received a surprise call from my 88-year-old father who lives in an ashram on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. Then I noticed messages and e-mails from well-wishers in the USA, UK and India. They were all concerned about my well-being in the midst of unprecedented protests taking place in Hong Kong, which has been my temporary home for over a year-and-a-half now.
The protest march on Sunday, June 9, was remarkable in many ways. By some estimates, it was one of the largest protest marches of its kind to take place in Hong Kong, easily beating the protests in 2003 against the national security legislation, which saw over half a million people come out on the streets.
This time it was over a million people by some estimates. The issue this time was the amendment of the extradition law. The proposed amendments would enable Hong Kong government to extradite residents in violation of the law in jurisdictions such as Mainland China, Taiwan or Macau. Such additional powers even in the absence of a mutual extradition treaty are widely believed to be vulnerable to misuse, particularly against activists opposed to China’s influence on Hong Kong.
The immediate cause for the current impasse goes back to February last year when a teenage couple from Hong Kong on Valentine’s Day vacation in Taiwan had a terrible fallout and the girl was murdered by her boyfriend. The young fugitive dumped the body and escaped back to Hong Kong. Later he was arrested as the crime was revealed and the accused admitted to it.
As per existing Hong Kong law, this accused fugitive couldn’t be extradited to Taiwan lacking a treaty between the two jurisdictions. On the other hand, Hong Kong police couldn’t charge the accused with the crime of murder as the same was committed in a foreign land. He was, however, convicted of a lesser crime of money laundering and is currently serving a 29-month prison sentence. Cases such as these are not too common, Hong Kong being a city with one of the lowest crime rates in the world. However, it gave the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam a perfect excuse to bring an amendment to enable extradition on a case-to-case basis.
Both the central government in Beijing and the local government in Hong Kong seem to have completely misjudged public sentiment. These protests could not have come at a worse time for Beijing
However, the inclusion of Mainland China in the list of jurisdiction meant to be covered by the proposed amendment raised much concern among all sections of the society. China has a legal system at odds with that of Hong Kong in terms of its protection for human rights and free speech. The free-spirited Hong Kong residents, known for their fierce allegiance to freedom, democracy and rule of law have time and again demonstrated their passion through peaceful, non-violent and democratic action. It was on ample display in the years leading up to the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China. It included the massive protests in solidarity with the pro-democracy student protests, leading to the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. The 2003 protests that successfully blocked the passage of the repressive national security legislation was yet another instance of that zeal. The pinnacle was the 79-day long Occupy Hong Kong protest in 2014, which was made well known world over as the Yellow Umbrella Movement. While it eventually ended without achieving its goal of securing democratic rights, such as choosing the chief executive without interference from Beijing, a generation of young activists was born. One such enigmatic figure was a young schoolboy, Joshua Wong, who is unfortunately serving a jail term for his role in that movement.
After the failure of the 2014 protests, the pro-democracy activists had disintegrated into many groups in frustration and lost both in terms of public support and political clout in the legislative council. For the last 4-5 years, Hong Kong had become resigned to its inevitable fate of gradual capitulation to the central government’s dictates. Even the annual vigil marking the anniversary of Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4 every year was becoming smaller with the turnout figures becoming less every year. Interestingly, against the backdrop of the administration’s efforts to bring in the extradition law amendment bill, this year’s vigil marking the 30-year anniversary saw a record turnout on June 4.
Almost 1,80,000 Hong Kong residents participated in the same and donated over $2 million to the organisers. Earlier on April 28, a march was organised to protest the proposed amendment bill, with organisers unsure about turnout. An estimated 1,30,000 participated in that rally, although police estimated the crowd to be only about 23,000 strong. I happened to be in the city that day and walked with the marchers for a few city blocks. The energy, the discipline, the passion among the protesters coming from diverse backgrounds was something to be seen to be believed. In spite of the protest, Lam declared to press ahead with the Bill and, in fact, accelerate it, bypassing committee proceedings. This action led to the historic march on June 9 and the current stand-off.
Both central government in Beijing and the local government in Hong Kong seem to have completely misjudged public sentiments. Against the backdrop of the current stand-off between the US and China on trade and other geopolitical disputes such as the sovereignty over the South China Sea and Taiwan, these protests couldn’t have come at a worse time for Beijing. Expatriate Hongkongers all over the world have come out in support of the protests in over 12 countries and 30 cities. With the massive turnout and support from all sections of society, including students, workers, professionals, business teachers, housewives and unions Lam is in an unenviable position with calls for her resignation. Whether she steps back or presses on, her continuation has become untenable both in the eyes of the public and the powers in Beijing.
Hong Kong is a unique and special place in many ways. It not only claims itself to be the World City of Asia with its cosmopolitan society, but is also acknowledged as a global hub of finance and trade at par with the likes of Singapore, London and New York. More importantly, it zealously guards its special autonomous place while being under Mainland China’s overall control. The one country – two systems arrangement that was agreed to between China and UK at hand-over in 1998 is designed to last for 50 years. What bothers most, especially the young Hong Kong resident is the uncertainty beyond 2048. In that background the current protests become significant. In spite of the odds stacked against them with the might of a fast emerging superpower like China staring down, tiny Hong Kong is in no mood to step back.
That fighting spirit is in the very DNA of the locals inspires people’s resistance all over the world. When a million out of a city of 7.5 million pour out on to the streets braving the weather, police action, possible arrest and jail to raise their voice against injustice, it shows a way for oppressed people everywhere. The fact that such a protest can be largely peaceful, non-violent and democratic is a tribute to the culture of a mature people. Like Martin Luther King Jr has said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Today, more than ever, the world is a family and Hong Kong’s fight for its rights to free speech, liberty and democracy is a powerful message for the world.
The author is a civil engineering professor in India currently visiting Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as a Research Scholar. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.