On Thursday more than twenty photojournalists wore helmets, gas masks and protective clothing to a police press conference in Hong Kong to express their outrage at the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations. Local police have become increasingly confrontational as up to a million citizens have taken to the streets to resist a law that would allow China to extradite journalists, political activists, human rights defenders and other critics into a legal system which it controls. Scenes of the latest crackdown recalled the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests which were also provoked by Beijing’s heavy-handed intrusion on Hong Kong’s democracy and civil liberties.

When she took office, two years ago, Chief Executive Carrie Lam promised to address the rifts which the 2014 protests had revealed. In particular she swore to uphold the principle of “one government, two systems.” and to defend the former British colony’s “core values” despite Beijing’s clear support for her candidacy. But, as her government’s official name –  “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China” – suggests the political tensions between Hong Kong and China are far from resolved. Lam claims that the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders’ Ordinance and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance were her idea, but the wider implications of the changes speak to growing unease about Beijing’s power to detain not only HKSAR citizens and residents  but, in principle, expatriates and visitors as well.

The protests have energized an impressively broad swathe of civil society. The New York Times reports that student and labour unions have joined with “small businesses, including restaurants and bookstores, [who] said they would close their doors” to show their opposition to the bill. Additionally “high school students and as many as 4,000 of their teachers planned a walkout” and a bus drivers’ union encouraged its members to drive below the speed limit. Lam’s response has been to expedite a vote on the legislative amendments.

Hong Kong’s protests are the front line of democratic resistance to China’s increasing authoritarianism. Although Lam has tried to present the changes as a fix for an individual case, according to Reuters her proposals are “sweeping changes that would simplify case-by-case extraditions of criminal suspects to countries beyond the 20 with which Hong Kong has existing extradition treaties.” As Amnesty International observed in a letter to Ms Lam, despite her assurances that the changes provide safeguards: “Anyone extradited to China will be at the risk of grave human rights violations [in a justice system with]  a record of arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, serious violations of fair trial rights, enforced disappearances and various systems of incommunicado detention without trial.”

Sixteen years ago smaller demonstrations successfully prevented the imposition of new national security legislation – Article 23 –  but the Umbrella movement protests in 2014 ultimately failed to prevent China from chiselling away at the civil liberties enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. With Beijing holding the whip hand in Hong Kong’s legislature and a vote on the extradition amendment less than a week away, the next few days will be critical. At a moment when the United States is narrowing its focus on Venezuela and Iran, and permitting senior officials to discuss both countries with alarming belligerence, it would be a considerable error for Washington to disregard the importance of supporting the far less problematic democracy movement in Hong Kong. 

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