Extradition laws amendment and the international status of Hong Kong: the one-way ticket

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

The recent proposal from the Hong Kong government to amend extradition laws, which would allow individuals to be sent to Mainland China for trial, undermines Hong Kong’s international status. But there is no way back. The government decided to push forward this bill despite public outcry and international criticism. Soon after the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission in the United States Congress published an issue brief concerning the risk to national security regarding the proposed amendments of the extradition laws, the European Union issued a formal diplomatic “demarche” protest note against the bill. On the one hand, it showed that the international community is worried about the potential damage done by further erosion of the autonomy of Hong Kong. On the other hand, such pronounced reactions are cornering the bill to the direction of no return when the issue is escalated to an international level. After Sai Wan (the nickname of the Liaison Office of the central government in Hong Kong since it is located in Sai Wan area on Hong Kong Island) stepped in, the significance of the bill went beyond the local legislation level. The official Chinese involvement means that this turmoil should be examined from a national level. It is vital to recognize how Chinese national strategies and the current international dynamics interact with the bill. Faced with the current power paradox, there are limited options for Hong Kongers.

Hong Kong under the East-West confrontation

Hong Kong has always been on the ideological frontline between the Liberal West and Communist China. Since the Cold War, Hong Kong has been an intelligence-gathering and propaganda hub for both sides. From the Chinese perspective, even in the post-Cold War and post-Handover (of Hong Kong and Macau) period, confrontation with the West remains a vital part in the nationalistic discourse, which emphasizes the history of aggression by Western power in the past century. The central government frames Hong Kong politics as “domestic” affairs with foreign involvements perceived as meddling in China, despite the fact that the special status of Hong Kong has always been the bridge between China and the rest of the world. The United States–Hong Kong Policy Act is a prime example of the adhesion of domestic politics and international relations. The special relationship between Hong Kong and the United States is based on the autonomy and de facto segregation of Hong Kong from China, especially on the judicial dimension which severely affects United States business interest. The United States has raised concerns about the tightening grip from Beijing corroding the rule of law in the territory, which threatens United States interest. Nonetheless, Beijing perceives this as leverage in Sino-United States strategic interactions, resulting in a discrepancy between China and the West when interpreting Hong Kong’s external relations.

Amid the rising tension between China and the United States under the “trade war ” atmosphere, the involvement of the United States in Hong Kong politics becomes more sensitive for China. Although China benefitted from Hong Kong as a segregated political entity providing businesses a bypass for goods trade, Beijing still has to confront the United States in Hong Kong affairs because of the grander confrontational strategy. Nationalistic narratives are not only rallied for foreign policy needs, but also carry domestic implications. Nationalism channels the discontent brought by the economic slowdown while signalling the determination from Beijing. The hardline approach towards Hong Kong politics is also a demonstration of strength to other regions in China with separatist movements, and more importantly, Taiwan. The tensions within China, across the strait, and with the liberal world suggest that room for any concession is diminishing. Backing down in front of foreign pressure would undermine regime stability, which is induced by the potential high audience costs from the nationalistic public. Therefore, once the Western powers are in play, Beijing can only reject their propositions regardless of the grounds of allegations.

The bill becoming a nation-level issue

The current extradition bill was a local legislation issue which the government claimed was introduced to tackle a murder case in Taiwan in which the suspect escaped to Hong Kong. However, the bill raised concerns for the possible extradition to Mainland China. The public fears political prosecutions. Even the business sector, which tends to be pro-establishment, also showed reluctance. It gradually evolved into a heated wrestling between the political camps in the Legislative Council. The situation escalated when Sai Wan stepped in after a massive protest on 28thApril. Sai Wan summoned the pro-establishment camp for unity and vocally stressed the support from Beijing. Pro-Beijing civil organizations were mobilized at the same time for Propaganda efforts such as petitions and public campaigns. Senior pro-establishment figures expect the sceptical business sector to fall in line after the push from Sai Wan. This would make the chances of revoking the bill slim.

Simultaneously, international actors, including governments, NGOs and the business sector, voiced their concerns. Regardless of the validity of those claims, from Beijing’s point of view, foreign involvement in Hong Kong is understood as interference with domestic stability. Succumbing to the “Western power” is unacceptable in the nationalistic narratives. To send a signal to the international community and domestic audience, Beijing will ensure the passage of the bill. Since the pro-establishment camp controls the majority in the Legislative Council, the bill will likely go through, despite the possible filibustering and protest from pan-democratic legislators.

Hong Kong, China, and the world

The harder Hong Kongers try to resist the increasing grip from Beijing, the heavier the grip may seem. As a result of hardline policies since Xi Jinping’s leadership and previous public unrest in Hong Kong, Beijing has chosen to enlarge the influence of Sai Wan by speeding up integration with the Mainland. The expanding political gap only fuels anti-China sentiments, compressing any leeway for negotiations. Under the backdrop of the rising tension between China and the liberal world, foreign involvement in Hong Kong is counterproductive but inevitable in situations like this. It is a dilemma for pro-democratic Hong Kongers and foreign actors where opposition appears to only cause greater crackdown.

In the future, Hong Kong is likely to see more internationalized political confrontations. The refugee status granted by Germany to two wanted Hong Kong activists demonstrated the liberal world no longer considers Hong Kong as unique as it has been. The situations concerning human rights and the rule of law might challenge foreign interest and universal values, forcing international actors to react. This type of foreign pressure would unavoidably further trigger Beijing, creating a vicious cycle. Eventually, the international community would have no choice but to treat Hong Kong as Mainland China. It in turn speeds up the integration between the territory and the Mainland. The amendments of extradition laws is likely to undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong, resulting in foreign responses such as possible sanctions. It could serve as a catalyst which drives Hong Kong into this vicious cycle. The bill is not only about the fear of unjustified extradition, but also a one-way ticket for Hong Kong, departing from the international arena.

Further Reading

Mark, C. K. (2004). Hong Kong and the Cold War: Anglo-American Relations 1949-1957. Oxford University Press.

Woods, J. S., & Dickson, B. J. (2017). Victims and patriots: disaggregating nationalism in urban China. Journal of Contemporary China26(104), 167-182.

Cheung, P. T. (2018). In Beijing’s Tightening Grip. In Hong Kong 20 Years after the Handover (pp. 255-286). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Ma, N. (2015). The rise of” anti-China” sentiments in Hong Kong and the 2012 Legislative Council elections. The China Review, 39-66.

Li, H. Y. (2019). Hong Kong’s international status: No longer a middleman. EAI Background Briefs. 1452. Singapore: East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

Bush, R. C. (2016). Hong Kong in the shadow of China: Living with the Leviathan. Brookings Institution Press.

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