30 years on from Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong is at the forefront of the fight for freedom

But a new extradition law threatens to further erode the territory's freedoms. 

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As the world remembers the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong is readying itself for its biggest protest in recent years. 

Like those protesters in 1989, people are being drawn to the street to call for freedom. The cause: an extradition law that threatens to jeopardise the rights and freedoms protected in the handover. 

In 1989, Hong Kong’s people looked on in horror at events in Beijing. And every year since, tens of thousands have gathered in the city for a candlelight vigil to avoid historical amnesia.

But this year, Hong Kong is at the crunch point in a political debate that could permanently transform the society for the worse. The city’s legislators ended up in a fistfight over the law, and more than tens of thousands of people took to the streets in early May to say “no” to it. This weekend, the city is readying itself for an even bigger protest, and on Thursday, the city’s lawyers will march in black through the streets to protest the proposals.

The protests are over proposals that will make it possible for the government of Hong Kong to extradite people to mainland China.

The handover agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, created a strict division between the legal systems of Hong Kong and mainland China: archival documents in the National Archives show that negotiators agreed that this was a priority and that a Hong Kong-China extradition agreement would undermine this firewall. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has said that the proposed law would be the “worst thing” to happen in Hong Kong since the handover.

The reason for this firewall is the sharp disparities between the two legal systems. The World Justice Project ranks Hong Kong at 16th in the world for rule of law, while China is ranked 82nd. In 2018, China’s Jiangsu province acquitted 43 people while convicting 96,271. The creation of an extradition law creates false equivalence between these two systems, leaving people in Hong Kong vulnerable to extradition to a jurisdiction where forced confession is normal, torture is common, and they are guaranteed a conviction.

The joint declaration states that Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms will be guaranteed for 50 years after the handover, but last week, the Hong Kong government confirmed that they were unwilling to write proper human rights safeguards into the law, or even the basic guarantee of a fair trial. It is hardly surprising that lawyers are taking to the streets, and that even some judges have spoken out. There should be no rendition without fair trial.  

To understand the depth of concern, it is helpful to look at the context. In recent years, Hong Kong has experienced an unprecedented crackdown on its freedoms. Booksellers have been abducted, student protestors have been imprisoned, political candidates have been disqualified from running for election and legislators have been barred from the city's legislature.

This has eroded trust that the Hong Kong government will protect human rights when they enact the extradition law. People are particularly concerned about the precedent set by the booksellers case, where political opponents of President Xi Jinping in China were abducted and made to forcibly confess in China based on trumped up charges that were unrelated to their political crimes. There are fears that the new law is effectively legalising abductions of this kind, without even attempting to put in effective human rights safeguards.

It is not only pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong who are concerned. Human rights and the rule of law benefit Hong Kong as an international financial centre. The American and International Chambers of Commerce have said the legislation would make Hong Kong a less attractive place to be. Hong Kong has historically been the only city in China with robust rule of law. It is the only city in China where people can use Facebook and read international news and it is the only city in China where business leaders have no need to fear a midnight knock on the door. The Hong Kong government would be unwise to undermine this competitive edge by breaking the firewall between Hong Kong and the mainland.

For those of us living in the United Kingdom, a country that has obligations to Hong Kong's basic freedoms under the terms of the handover agreement, we must not ignore Hong Kong as the freedoms people cherish are whittled away. Just as people in Hong Kong have met for a Tiananmen vigil every year in solidarity with their mainland Chinese counterparts, we must be vigilant and stand with friends in Hong Kong – encouraging the Hong Kong government to see that retaining the freedoms and holding on to the handover agreement is not only the best way forward for their business interests, but also the way to bring unity in Hong Kong’s divided society and contentment to its people. 

Johnny Patterson is director of Hong Kong Watch, a London-based human rights organisation.