Two million demonstrators – that’s two out of every seven Hong Kong residents – have been pouring onto the island’s streets to protest a new extradition law.
The bill would have allowed citizens accused of certain crimes to be tried in China – where justice is known to be swift and often severe. Activists feared it would allow them to be jailed in China, saying anyone could be taken on trumped up charges dating back years. Pro-democracy law makers pointed out to the US it was in their interests to see the bill fail, because it would cover the 85,000 US citizens living in Hong Kong.
This week the Hong Kong leadership backed down and the bill was suspended. But it wasn’t a convincing capitulation.
Commentators say this is the confluence of two historic events – the unstoppable rise of China, and the promise made more than 20 years ago by a fading empire. When Britain pulled out of the colony in 1997 a promise was made of autonomy for Hong Kong.
The policy was one country – two systems. Hong Kong expected representative government and democratic accountability, even while being administered by China.
Rafael Wober is a Hong Kong correspondent for AAP and has been on the island since 1995.
He says many people there, while not interested in independence, are determined to keep it very clear that Hong Kong is not China … and in fact is quite different. Such differences include how you can use the internet – or what happens when they go to court. “They are deeply protective of this status.” Customs and immigration are also separate.
“It’s not usual in Hong Kong for anything such as tear gas to be used by police, and I think that has a great impact on the public in general, and galvanised resistance to the government’s wishes to try to push through this legislation,” he says.
“What we’ve seen from the protestors … is an increased determination to resist the push for new legislation. Although the streets are calm now there’s certainly a huge gulf remaining between the government and the Hong Kong public as a whole. It’s a kind of gap at the moment where the government is not trying to do anything, anymore, but it has not satisfied the demands of the protestors.”
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has apologised to the public – her dramatic retreat hasn’t stopped new protests, or demands for her to step down.
“The Hong Kong government has completely lost the trust of the younger generation,” says Wober. “The gulf between the authorities here and this younger generation is almost unmendable at this stage, at least with the current leader in place. But apart from them, there’s a wide section of society of all ages who’ve taken part in these protests since April.”