The news from Hong Kong reminds me of lyrics of a song from my youth — “a thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs.” Except it wasn’t a thousand on June 9, 2019. It was a million. Repeat: a million. One-seventh of Hong Kong’s population.
Imagine one-seventh of the population in the city closest to you, out on the street demanding that legislators not pass a law concerning extradition of criminal suspects.
Years ago, I lived in Hong Kong. I was among the Hong Kong Chinese for three years. They were hard-working, versatile, street-smart. Proud, too. They regarded the British as weakened by the welfare state, the Singaporeans as rigid, and the Middle Easterners as religious fanatics. The Hong Kong people were not hotheads. They did not yell and shake their fists at one another in public, like the Italians. They did not go on strike for inscrutable reasons, like the French. They were not like the Indonesians, who celebrated the heroes who had fought for their independence and won, or the Filipinos, who celebrated the heroes who had fought for their independence and lost. The Hong Kong people did not grow up singing the national anthem, saluting the flag, and praising the military, like the Americans. They didn’t have a flag that was really theirs or a real military, either. When I got there in 1989, they had no political parties, though they were about to create one.
It was a million. Repeat: a million. One-seventh of Hong Kong’s population.
The first piece I ever wrote for Liberty (as R.K. Lamb, in the March 1990 issue) was about Hong Kong, where I was living along with 40,000 or so American expatriates. (More than double that, now.) The territory was governed by the British. They had cut a deal with China to turn it over in 1997. They hadn’t asked the Hong Kong people about that deal, and China hadn’t asked, either. On its face, the deal seemed all right. Under Deng Xiaoping’s formula of “one country, two systems,” China had agreed to let Hong Kong retain its legal system for 50 years, until 2047.
In those days 2047 was an unimaginably long time away, and 1997 was coming up. The question was, how was “one country, two systems” going to work? The Hong Kong press — one of Asia’s freest — was reassuring. Things would be fine. China has promised to let us be! Outside the spotlight, Hong Kong professionals were quietly “voting with their feet,” emigrating to Australia, Canada, the United States, and several countries in Southeast Asia.
I didn’t think “one country, two systems” was going to work. In 2006, I wrote a piece for Liberty admitting that I had been too pessimistic: China had done better by Hong Kong than I thought it would.
Overall it still has — so far. I have to give China credit for that.
The Hong Kong people did not grow up singing the national anthem, saluting the flag, and praising the military, like the Americans.
Milton Friedman had proclaimed in his Free to Choose TV series that Hong Kong had more economic freedom than any place on earth. The Fraser Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both of which annually survey economic freedom, verify that it still is. But an economy requires a foundation of politics and law, which Friedman well knew. Hong Kong’s legal foundation was, and is, British law, which is a product of centuries of the politics and history of the people of England. When I’d ask a Hongkonger why Hong Kong was rich, the answer was, “hard work.” Nobody ever said, “British law.” The Hong Kong people had worked hard to build their prosperity, but they hadn’t built the system of law that supported their personal and business freedom. They had inherited it. If they wanted to keep it after 1997 they were going to have to fight for it, and I wasn’t sure whether they would.
Well, they have. Whether they will prevail is another matter.
The British never gave the Hong Kong people political freedom, meaning the right to vote out their government and institute a new one. The handover in 1997 gave the people only a limited vote. They formed a number of “pro-Beijing” and “pro-democracy” political parties. In the 2016 elections, the pro-democracy parties got 36% of the public vote and the pro-Beijing parties (a weird mixture of pro-communist and “patriotic” business conservatives) 40% of the public vote, so the pro-democracy parties do not have a claim to rule. Hong Kong’s political system makes that nearly impossible anyway. Of 70 seats in the unicameral legislature, half are elected by public vote and half by the union federations, the chambers of commerce, the lawyers, the teachers, the social workers, and other “functional constituencies.”
When I’d ask a Hongkonger why Hong Kong was rich, the answer was, “hard work.” Nobody ever said, “British law.”
For more background, take a look at the Council on Foreign Relations report “Democracy in Hong Kong.” Under this hybrid system the pro-Beijing parties have held on to their majority for 22 years. Hong Kong’s chief executive has never been elected by the people; the current executive, Carrie Lam, was chosen by a select group of 1,200 Hongkongers acceptable to Beijing. The pro-democracy forces have been pushing for more than a decade to have the executive be elected by the people, but China will not allow it.
On to the current matter. I am no expert; I haven’t lived in Hong Kong since 1993, and I haven’t followed the story as it has been building these past four months. I have done my catching up on the Internet.
According to a report in the Irish Times, the matter began in 2018 with a 19-year-old Hong Kong man who went to Taiwan with his 20-year-old girlfriend, who was four months pregnant. The man returned alone and admitted to police he had strangled her, stuffed her body in a suitcase, and dumped it near a subway station. Under an extradition treaty, the man would have been extradited to Taiwan for trial for murder. Hong Kong has extradition treaties with some 20 jurisdictions, including the United States, but not Taiwan and not China, the sovereign power over Hong Kong.
In February 2019 the Hong Kong government said it needed to remedy this problem by amending its Fugitive Offenders Ordinance. The changes would allow the Hong Kong government to extradite a person to a non-treaty jurisdiction. This proposal is what a million people are in the street about. They are worried that the new law will allow innocent people to be extradited to China.
The pro-democracy forces have been pushing for more than a decade to have the executive be elected by the people, but China will not allow it.
The Hong Kong government says not to worry. The proposed law stipulates that no person can be extradited for the expression of political views, for a political crime, or for a political motive; that no person can be extradited in a case of double jeopardy or any crime for which the sentence is less than seven years; and that if there is a possibility of a capital sentence the destination country must promise not to impose it. (Hong Kong does not have the death penalty. China does.) The law says that any person extradited has the right to appeal to Hong Kong courts, and can be extradited only if the chief executive agrees.
I’m no lawyer, but on its face the proposal seems all right. The law is strong in Hong Kong. The courts have been good. And yet a million people are in the street. The story, I think, is not about what the proposed law says. It is about the fear of how such a law might be used, and the political consequences of its passage. The people of Hong Kong remember what China’s government did in 1989 to the protesters at Tiananmen Square, and they still do not trust the Chinese state.
One group that has come out against the law is the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. This is notable. The AmCham is not Human Rights Watch. It represents US corporations, which are primarily interested in commerce. But commerce and human rights are connected in ways AmCham is quite aware of. In its public statement, AmCham expresses the worry that “the new arrangements could be used for rendition from Hong Kong to a number of jurisdictions with criminal procedure systems very different from those of Hong Kong — which provides strong protections for the legitimate rights of defendants — without the opportunity for public and legislative scrutiny of the fairness of those systems and the specific safeguards that should be sought in cases originating from them.”
This proposal is what a million people are in the street about. They are worried that the new law will allow innocent people to be extradited to China.
What recent reasons are there to worry? Martin Lee, the Hong Kong lawyer who founded the territory’s first political party, wrote a piece for the Washington Post, naming some of the reasons. In 2017, mainland agents abducted Chinese Canadian billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who has not been seen since. In 2015, five Hong Kong publishers were taken; one of them, Lam Wing-kee, was forced to make a televised confession.
“Why were these people abducted?” Lee wrote. “Because there is no extradition law between Hong Kong and China. There is no extradition law because there is no rule of law in China, where the Chinese Communist Party dictates who is innocent and who is guilty. For the same reason, the United States has no extradition arrangements with China (though it does with Hong Kong).”
Lee wrote, “The Hong Kong government is poised to pass an extradition law that will legalize such kidnappings and threatens to destroy Hong Kong’s free society . . . Beijing could extradite Americans in Hong Kong on trumped-up charges . . .”
I remember Martin Lee from my time in Hong Kong, and later, when he came through Seattle and I interviewed him. Lee is an old-time liberal, dogged to the point of ouch. He sometimes cries wolf when the wolf doesn’t come — that is, he imagines things that don’t happen — but a smart lawyer may imagine various futures in order to protect his client. And that would be the Hong Kong people. They are worried about what might happen.
What to do, if you're China? You inhibit Hong Kong’s democratic institutions now.
And think about what the world looks like from their shoes. They have 28 years left of “one country, two systems.” After that comes one system — China’s. In 2047, Hong Kong’s British law goes away.
Put yourself in the shoes of the Communist Party of China. You really didn’t like Deng Xiaoping having to grant that pushy Englishwoman, Margaret Thatcher, “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong’s system is alien, bourgeois-liberal, British. You want it to go away. You want Hong Kong to be Chinese — fully. But if Hong Kong’s British-derived law survives intact up to 2047, millions of Hong Kong people will demand that you extend their system for another 50 years. You don’t want that. You want to make sure that never happens.
What to do? You inhibit Hong Kong’s democratic institutions now. You stop any expansion of the number of publicly elected seats in Hong Kong’s legislature, and you do not allow Hong Kong’s chief executive to be publicly elected — ever. You don’t have to say “ever”; you just have to drag your feet, wave your arms, declare emergencies, make excuses, whatever it takes, to make sure full elections don’t happen by 2047.
For the Hong Kong people, accepting Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” was always a bet that China would change politically.
You also want to cut holes in the Hong Kong legal system — with a public security law, or a law requiring political content in public education, a law that allows you to extradite criminals to China, etc. The extradition law can promise not to grab anyone for political offenses, but some person decides what those are. And if people like you get to choose that person, then you’re fine.
As a Communist, you want to chisel away at Hong Kong’s British law until by 2047 it’s not worth anyone fighting for.
Defenders of China will say I am making things up, and they will be right. I am imagining things. I believe that’s what the Hong Kong people are doing — imagining their future.
For the Hong Kong people, accepting Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” was always a bet that China would change politically — that after 50 years, China would be enough like Hong Kong that the people living then could work things out. Economically and socially China has already changed a lot. Politically not so much — and the years tick by.
Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping cut the “one country, two systems” deal 13 years before Britain’s lease on Hong Kong was set to expire in 1997. They needed to do it then because Hong Kong people, and foreigners also, had to have some assurance about life after 1997 so they could make business investments, take out mortgages, start careers, and decide where to live their lives.
Thirteen years before 2047 is 2034. That’s a milepost to think about. And it’s coming up.
Unable to secure their future at the ballot box, they are attempting to do it, peacefully but urgently, in the street.
Most readers of Liberty live in jurisdictions in which the great political questions are settled. We argue over the remaining issues, and occasionally work ourselves into a lather about them — imagining that the next election is the most important in our lives, that Barack Obama is going to usher in socialism, that Donald Trump is going to suspend the Constitution, or that Bernie Sanders is going to hoist the red flag. It’s fun, you know, and some of the issues are important, but it all pales before the political questions faced by the people of Hong Kong.
Almost 30 years ago I wrote in Liberty that I thought the Hong Kong people had failed to take charge of their political future, being “too busy in Mr. Friedman’s capitalist paradise, making money.”
Not anymore. The Hong Kong people don’t have the British to protect them or anyone, really. Unable to secure their future at the ballot box, they are attempting to do it, peacefully but urgently, in the street.
How did the song go? “A thousand people in the street, singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying ‘hooray for our side’.”
Damn right, hooray for their side.