With the turning up of British Union Jack flags, the recent Hong Kong protests seem to have given China a major setback on the much-debated extradition bill. The Hong Kong administration had intended to introduce such a legislation to allow transfer of criminal suspects outside its jurisdiction to places with which they lack an extradition treaty citing a murder case involving two Hong Kong inhabitants. Poon Hiu-wing was murdered by her boyfriend Chan Tong-Kai while on a trip to Taiwan but Chan got arrested only after returning to Hong Kong. Hence, ‘The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Ammendment) Bill’ has been in the news recently as it would allow the extradition or co-operative trial and transfer of fugitives/criminals between Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan and Macau, which was previously impossible as Hong Kong lacked any existing extradition treaty in place for serving the purpose. This, however, is what has been placed as an agenda by Hong Kong officials, promoted by Carrie Lam whose administration the western media has immediately recognized as a pro-mainland (People’s Republic China) lobby in comparison to those opposing the bill self-proclaiming themselves as the pro-democracy lobby. This bill met with immediate peaceful to violent protests from activists afraid of giving up their democratic rights which they claim would suffer from the strict laws of the mainland. With comments being thrown from United States of America (USA), United Kingdom (UK) and China back and forth about the crisis, the mass protests have gradually taken a violent form in the past few weeks.
The “One Country Two Systems” policy is what the activists demand to be treated with respect. Hong Kong, previously a British colony, was handed over to China in 1997 under the “One Country Two Systems” agreement which prevented the execution of the strict laws of mainland China on Hong Kong, a clever bid to keep the region retain its capitalist mode of economy while China enjoyed sovereignty over the region. This treaty, however, was looked at by the then Chinese government officials as a temporary condition which would help Hong Kong serve as a hub with more flexible trade policies between the mainland and the other countries until Hong Kong was ready to become a part of the mainland. The present political crisis is proving otherwise.
The truth of the situation is far bigger than the simple scuffles of protecting democratic rights under a communist government in a pro-capitalist market. The Sino-US relations were initially at stake with the latter’s initial interference into the situation in Hong Kong. Although it was previously commented upon by Trump that certain governments are not pro-democratic, USA seems to have toned down their interference in the matter while UK, the former colonizer of Hong Kong is unwilling to yield to China. Hong Kong still remains a vital trade and finance partner of Britain. It is one of the largest Asia-Pacific market for UK exports worth ₤8 billion annually. There are over 600 UK companies in Hong Kong. Investment of UK in Hong Kong is worth ₤33 billion accounting 35% of its total investment in Asia. Therefore, to retain its trading supremacy and taking advantage of the disturbance at hand, the UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has made their stand clear, warning China of serious consequences and staunchly supporting the protesters in their fight to retain their rights which would, in turn, serve and protect their capitalist free market economy in Hong Kong instead of being threatened by the firm market policies of mainland China. The Chinese government has retaliated, the Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming stating firmly “Hands Off Hong Kong” and alleging the UK of interfering in China’s affairs in Hong Kong. Despite UK’s bitter statements, the successful ₤500 billion China-Britain trade agreement seems to point towards the cosmetic character of such heated talks. China had also stated and has been successful in not allowing any discussion on this extradition bill at the G20 Summit, following an appeal by the protestors to foreign leaders to intervene on this issue.
17% of Chinese exports reach USA via Hong Kong while 9% of US exports enter mainland China through the city. Therefore, US-China trade war escalation had affected Hong Kong as well. Although the US seems to have taken a pro-China stand on the matter to develop the Sino-US relations further, evading the trade war, the Trump administration is citing a 1979 Law to sell Taiwan $2.2 billion arms that ‘it may need to defend itself’! Back in 2004, Colin Powell, the then US Secretary of State commented that Taiwan wasn’t a sovereign nation and it would look forward to its peaceful reunification with the mainland. The dream of the free world (read free market) that the West aims for Taiwan to put the Chinese economy at the back-foot is now being powered by arms which can lead to war if mainland China calls for a forceful reunification of Taiwan. While Taiwan has expressed willingness in seceding from the extradition bill unless their sovereignty is accepted by all the stakeholders, UK officials are clinging to their position of not considering Taiwan as an independent nation. Thus, the US and UK have adopted a two faced policy to take advantage of this crisis situation.
The mainland China-Hong Kong-Taiwan trade route is a silk route for the underworld. Taking advantage of the Chinese free market, the British American Tobacco company (BATCo) has been following the ‘alternative’ route of distribution of ‘unofficial’ imports of tobacco into mainland China with only 5.4% of its total business passing through the legal channel of National Tobacco Corporation, China’s tobacco monopoly, since the 1990s. On the other hand, recent reports of smuggling of ketamine and methamphetamine worth $700,000 from Taiwan to Hong Kong has sparked fresh theories on the trans-border market operations of black money. The much frowned upon mainland Laws characterized by stringent market principles and severe punishment for drug trafficking and several other crimes related to smuggling have seemingly created panic upon the syndicates of organized crime working efficiently in the inter-connected routes of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland. Hong Kong’s legal slippages attract criminal activity; its ports being safe harbours for smugglers, its skyscrapers acting as offices for North Korean shell companies and its banking system a gambling hub to money launderers. With the reduction of Hong Kong’s share of China’s GDP to 3%, the augmented flow of black money to the mainland has provoked the Chinese government to endorse the extradition bill for preventing Chinese businessmen from expatriating profits via Hong Kong during slow economic growth.
On the eve of onset of such protests, Hong Kong exhibited a total trade value of $15 billion with $13 billion worth of export and $2 billion of import, proving itself to be a wonder destination for trade and commerce and justifying the eagerness of interference of USA and UK. In a bid to bring the situation under control, Carrie Lam declared the extradition bill to be dead. However, the protests are still continuing in demand of complete withdrawal of the bill. Softening some provisions of the bill in terms of surrender arrangements and trials did not bear fruit. With increasing mercury of violence, Lam has resorted to supporting the police and citing protesters as rioters. The protesters, on the other hand, are resorting to a wider movement for democratic reforms and universal suffrage in the semi-autonomous state. As the expectations of peaceful reunification of Hong Kong with mainland China begin to fade, the new wave of endorsement of right-wing politics by the youth of Hong Kong raises concern as to whether the movement can spread in the mainland as well. If successful in crossing the boundary, it may threaten the legitimacy of the Xi Jinping government.
China’s failing foreign policies followed by the present situation of unrest in Hong Kong appears to distance the dream of reunification of Hong Kong from reality. As the fight for flexible open trade becomes more and more violent in these regions that currently serve as a tunnel between the rest of the world and China, what seems to be a fight for democracy is revealing itself as an apparent fight for market control between nations.