For journalists in the modern era, reporting on crowd sizes at very large protests is problematic. The organisers of the demonstrations generally say one thing on the numbers; the authorities say another.
We do know that hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Hong Kong last Sunday to protest against a controversial bill that would allow extraditions from the territory to more jurisdictions, including mainland China (see WiC448). The organisers from the Civil Human Rights Front put the turnout at 1.03 million, although the police told reporters that their crowd-control units estimated that 240,000 were parading at the demonstration’s peak.
Francis Lui, an economist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, put the number at less than 200,000. Lui’s team estimated that for more than one million people to complete the 3.8-kilometre march in eight hours, up to 20 people would have needed to jam into a single square metre of space. “This [one million] is not possible even if they sit on each other’s shoulders,” Lui told reporters, challenging the Civil Human Rights Front to reveal their crowd-counting methodology.
Nevertheless few would disagree that the protests on Sunday were one of Hong Kong’s biggest political rallies since half a million people (again, according to the Civil Human Right Front) took to the streets in 2003 to protest against a proposed anti-subversion law (the so-called Article 23).
In calling for a new extradition bill, the Hong Kong government says it is responding to a case in February last year, when a 20 year-old from the territory fled back to Hong Kong after allegedly murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan.
Without an extradition agreement, Hong Kong cannot hand over the suspect to Taiwan and a local court was instead only able to lock him up for a 29-month sentence for stealing his girlfriend’s credit card (he is expected to be released later in the summer).
According to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, her administration is trying to “plug a legal loophole”. But the legal revisions (first proposed back in February) to allow extradition to a wide range of countries have been hugely contentious to people in the former British colony, which is supposed to enjoy relative autonomy from mainland China.
The primary concern, the Apple Daily has argued, is a lack of faith in China’s judicial system. Political activists complain that the planned legislation would further erode Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” constitutional setup, and that Beijing would be able to scoop up political dissidents and send them north across the border.
Even pro-Beijing business groups have expressed concerns that local people who did business in China might have committed wrongdoings of their own in the past, perhaps in response to the demands of bribe-soliciting mainland officials.
The Hong Kong government has assured opponents of the bill that the extradition law won’t apply to political offences and, more importantly, that the city’s judges will act as gatekeepers, ruling independently on each case as it comes up. Officials have also defended the legislation, pointing to similar one-off extradition models in Britain, Canada, and New Zealand. Candidates for extradition can also file for judicial reviews to challenge any decision.
Since 1997, the mainland authorities have handed over 270 criminals to Hong Kong authorities, including some high profile fugitives, such as the murderer of a local airline stewardess and the attackers of a popular editorial writer at the Ming Pao newspaper. No mainland fugitive has been dispatched in the other direction.
According to Ming Pao, criminals who fled mainland China to Hong Kong are the most vulnerable under the planned extradition law. But there are questions about others that could be at risk, especially people that Beijing deems a threat to China’s national security. For some that means the new extradition law could be a more dangerous threat to civil liberties than the anti-subversion law that got shelved in 2003 – the latter would have required trials in the Hong Kong’s courts; while the former relies more on China’s legal system.
In the past month the government has already made a number of concessions, such as cutting the list of extraditable crimes from 46 to 37, and applying the legislation only to crimes punishable by seven or more years in jail (up from three years originally). The changes were welcomed by some of the city’s local tycoons. Real estate billionaire Joseph Lau, who was jailed in absentia for five years by a Macau court in 2014, has dropped a judicial review of his own challenging the government’s decision.
However, the concessions were not enough for a big slice of the general public who took part in the demonstration on Sunday. Hundreds of younger protesters later took a more confrontational approach after the rally and tried to storm the city’s legislative building.
Things turned even worse on Wednesday as the government ignored that public pressure and instead tabled the legislative amendment for a second reading.
This time, tens of thousands surrounded government buildings and police had to fire tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse the angry crowd. Parts of the city’s Admiralty district were blockaded for virtually the entire day. At least 80 people were hospitalised because of the clashes.
According to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, senior Chinese leaders including Han Zheng, one of the seven Standing Committee members and the man ultimately in charge of Hong Kong affairs, have voiced strong support for Lam’s proposal to forge a new extradition framework between Hong Kong and the mainland. They are very unlikely to back off in the face of public opposition.
Chinese state newspapers were similarly insistent that the law must be changed, warning too that “external forces” have been stoking up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong (presumably because some of the city’s politicians travelled to Washington and met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to express their concerns).
“It is lawlessness that will hurt Hong Kong, not the proposed amendments to its fugitive law,” the China Daily insisted.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, described the protests as “organised riots” in an emotional television interview in which she rejected accusations that she was betraying Hong Kong by pushing ahead with the proposals.
Demonstrators continued to gather around the city’s legislature on Thursday, although lawmakers announced a delay to debating the proposed bill.
A number of the city’s newspapers are warning of more violent confrontations if the government insists on forcing through the bill, however. And the political unrest surrounding the row seems to have taken a toll on investment confidence, with Hong Kong-listed Goldin Financial announcing on Tuesday that it will reverse its plan to buy a key parcel of land in the Kai Tak area (Hong Kong’s old airport) due to “recent social contradictions and economic instability”.
Tianjin-based Goldin won the public tender for the residential project with a record bid of $1.4 billion but it now has to forgo the HK$25 million deposit for tearing up the agreement with the Hong Kong government. Goldin’s announcement came after an emergency board meeting was called by Abraham Shek. An independent board director, Shek is also the representative of Hong Kong’s real estate developers in the city’s legislature. As ever in Hong Kong, one of the best measures of how things stand is to watch for the direction of the property market. Were prices to start to fall, that would speak volumes.
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