Hong Kong citizen protests
Hong Kong's 2014 'Umbrella Movement' protests (Image: Studio Incendo)

Hong Kong’s proposed extradition treaty with China was the subject of unprecedented street protests at the weekend, attended by as many as one million of the city’s eight million residents. It’s the biggest series of protests since 1989 marches again the Tiananmen Square massacre, and is looming as a headache for the Australian government.

Known officially as the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, the proposed law has its second reading in the Hong Kong Legislative Council Wednesday today. While debate begins today, the bill is expected to be voted on on June 20 as the LC added sitting days to push the new law through.

But the council, which is controlled by pro-establishment figures loyal to Beijing, appears to have the numbers despite a conspicuous lack of any public consultation. Protesters have threatened to surround the legislature today and mount further challenges to the changes.

What is the extradition treaty?

Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” promises Hong Kong a significant degree of legal and and political autonomy, guaranteed by the “Hong Kong Basic Law”.

While Hong Kong presently has extradition treaties with about 20 countries, including Australia, the new amendments will allow the transfer of “fugitives” from Hong Kong to mainland China. The proposed legislation has been widely criticised by lawyers, business people who are traditionally more pro-establishment, human rights activists and ordinary citizens. It covers a wide range of crimes, including some white collar crimes, although these have been watered down after lobbying by the business sector.

Beijing’s track record almost guarantees it will be used for political purposes. China’s legal system is opaque and offers few of the protections offered by Hong Kong’s.

The government simply says it is closing a loophole, but critics point to explicit comments from Chinese leaders that the treaty will be used to hunt down dissidents and others they believe are hiding in Hong Kong. It is widely seen that the treaty will be open to abuse.

The proposed amendment would also put journalists and whistleblowers under threat when reporting on issues related to China, dealing a further blow to the rapidly shrinking freedom of expression traditionally enjoyed in Hong Kong.

How is Beijing encroaching on Hong Kong?

Beijing has been slowly exercising more control over Hong King since similar protests in 2003 managed to bring down a proposed National Security Law. But since Xi Jinping stepped into ruling the Chinese Communist Party’s top job in 2012 Beijing has begun further constricting freedoms in Hong Kong.

An armed garrison of the People’s Liberation Army has been put in place for the first time, there has been interference in Hong Kong’s universities and attempts by Beijing to change school curriculum.

In June 2014, the Chinese government released a so-called White Paper on Hong Kong which saw 1800 Hong Kong lawyers march on the Court of Final Appeal (Hong Kong’s top court) to protest what they saw as a blue print to chip away at the Basic Law. It was also the trigger for the months-long pro-democracy protests know as the Umbrella Movement, the main protagonists of which are now in prison.

How did the media cover the protest?

In further bad news for the region’s media, journalists were blocked, abused, harassed and assaulted by police, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Police pointed their flashlights at cameras so it was difficult to film and pushed journalists into metal barriers. Later, police expelled the media from the area, shouting that “reporters have no privilege”.

“The police’s actions ignored the personal safety of journalists, seriously trampled on the right to interview,” the Hong Kong Journalists Association said.

Why should Australia be worried?

There are about 100,000 Australian citizens living in Hong Kong according to the Australian Consulate-General in Hong Kong. It also notes there are approximately 600 Australian businesses operating in Hong Kong. The Chinese government, however, has shown time and again that it has little regard for the colour of anyone’s passport as long as they were born in China.

Beijing has already shown that it will flaunt Hong Kong laws with impunity, a point highlighted by the kidnapping of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015. One of whom, Swedish citizen Gui Min-hai, was disappeared in Thailand remains in custody on the Chinese mainland. In recent years there have been a number of high profile cases of Chinese-Australians thrown in jail for lengthy sentences, including Rio Tinto’s Stern Hu, Matthew Ng and Charlotte Chou.

What is Canberra saying?

Canberra, at least, is paying some attention. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade saying it is “taking a close interest in the proposed amendments …”

The Australian Consul-General in Hong Kong has raised this issue at senior levels. Given the intense public and international community interest, we hope any amendments are pursued in keeping with due process and consultation, and resolved in a way that maintains confidence in the operation of ‘one country, two systems’.

The government has consistently said that it wants to “reset” relations with Beijing and operates a model it describes as “economic diplomacy”, where money tends to trump human rights concerns. Australia recently signed a free trade agreement with Hong Kong, which is our sixth largest export market and fifth biggest in foreign investor, holding 3.4% of all foreign investment in the country.

The US, already engaged in deepening trade war with China, has expressed “grave concerns” about the bill, which it said “could undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and negatively impact the territory’s long-standing protections of human rights” according to a State Department spokeswoman on June 10.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has previously said she would step down if the people were against her. She seems to have changed her mind.