China backs down in Hong Kong—for now
Marching for the city’s freedoms
Beijing’s push for tighter control of Hong Kong suffered an embarrassing setback last week, after massive protests forced the semi-autonomous region’s government to suspend a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China. Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7.4 million citizens flooded the streets to oppose the legislation, fearing it would undermine the freedoms that Hong Kongers enjoy under the “one country, two systems policy,” implemented when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. At times, the protests turned violent, with riot police pounding the crowd with rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons and young demonstrators—some wearing masks to foil facial-recognition technology—hurling bricks at officers. After initially holding firm against what she called a “blatant, organized riot,” the city’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced she would “indefinitely suspend” the extradition bill.
But Lam made clear that the bill was only being delayed, not scrapped as protesters demanded. She says the legislation is needed to close a legal “gap” exposed by a recent case in which Hong Kong couldn’t extradite a local man to Taiwan even though he allegedly murdered his pregnant girlfriend there last year. Protesters accuse Lam and Beijing of exploiting the tragedy to erode the city’s judicial autonomy so that local dissidents can be prosecuted in secretive mainland courts. They have vowed to keep protesting until the bill is revoked. “Hong Kong people are not stupid,” said pro-democracy legislator Alvin Yeung. “They know when the ax is falling down.”
What the columnists said
“The most powerful man in Asia” faces a fateful dilemma, said The New York Times in an editorial. Chinese President Xi Jinping gives Lam her orders, and he must now decide whether to “back down before people power, anathema to any authoritarian,” or to crush the resistance. But a direct assault on civil liberties in Hong Kong would be risky. The city is a global financial hub, and if multinationals were to flee a crackdown on freedoms, it would hurt China’s “claims of Asian and global leadership.”
“Hong Kong needs a leader of the free world,” said Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. The bravery of activists has been “breathtaking,” yet President Trump had “virtually nothing to say,” other than hoping they could “work it out.” Congress must pick up the slack and pass a bipartisan Senate bill that would require the advantages Hong Kong enjoys under U.S. law—its exemption, for example, from stinging U.S. tariffs on China—to be certified annually. Xi might then think twice about robbing the city of its freedoms.
He has already succeeded in eroding the rule of law in Hong Kong, said Matthew Campbell in Bloomberg.com. Following widespread pro-democracy protests in 2014, the local government has jailed activists on drummed-up charges and banned political parties from advocating for independence. At least two people have been abducted from Hong Kong soil for trial on the mainland. It’s in Xi’s DNA to want to control things, and “an unruly Hong Kong” is simply not acceptable to him. “Further confrontations are inevitable.”