Hong Kong erupted in large-scale protests in June 2019, and there are no signs yet of them slowing down. The immediate trigger was a proposed change to extradition laws, but the demands of the protestors over the past seven months have grown wider, presenting foundational challenges to the political life of the territory. Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire until 1997, when it was returned to China after 155 years. But the retrocession took place under special conditions. The former colony was reconstituted as a special administrative region and was granted special privileges, including a separate legal and economic system. These privileges are meant to be in effect until 2047. It is this framework, popularly known as the “one country, two systems” arrangement, which the protestors do not want to see diluted.
The sustained and largely leaderless resistance by citizens, mostly youth, against political compromises made by legislators in Hong Kong, has the international community transfixed. Many commentators have described the past year as one of global protests, with citizens pushing back against increasingly authoritarian governments around the world. In India, too, the unprecedented demonstrations by citizens opposing the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and the National Register of Citizens is broadly perceived as a defence of democratic principles. Although not a democracy, Hong Kong is, as a report in Foreign Policy described it, “an unusual example of rights without democracy.”
The proposed extradition law poses an existential threat to the region’s autonomy. The law, if enacted, would allow suspected criminals to be extradited to China, thus putting individuals within the reach of the mainland legal system. Hong Kong, with its independent judiciary, is aligned with international norms and a jurisprudence that favours transparency, in comparison to a mainland judicial system that owes its allegiance to the Communist Party of China. The chief worry with this measure was that the law would be used to target activists and dissidents, allowing them to be deported to the mainland. These fears are not unfounded. In 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers were kidnapped and brought to China on vague charges—including, in one case, a traffic violation. These booksellers sold books about the Chinese leadership that have been banned in the mainland.