Friday 21 June 2019 5:05 am

If Hong Kong can face down the Chinese bullies, there is hope for the rest of the world

Every child is taught that the best way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them, rather than to allow them to indulge in their destructive behaviour.

While there is of course a risk of a punishment beating, more often it turns out that the bully has adopted aggressive tactics to mask their own insecurities. Once these are called out, the situation improves.

The case of Hong Kong’s mooted extradition law, and the mass protests that have forced a change in policy, has much to do with this unwritten law of the playground.

When Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty by the British in 1997, China explicitly accepted the principle of “one country, two systems”, whereby Hong Kong would possess its own judicial independence, legislature and economic system for a period of at least 50 years.

Unique to China, Hong Kong residents enjoy civil liberties of the kind familiar in the west, and participate in direct elections, although half the seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council are indirectly elected in order to preserve a pro-Beijing majority.

Hong Kong could have been Beijing’s democratic sandpit, where its leaders experimented with democratic solutions that might suit the needs of a rapidly changing China.

But instead, right from the start, China attempted to subvert Hong Kong’s treaty-backed freedoms and force its citizens into complying with a more restrictive, “Chinese” view of democracy.  

The first time that this occurred, in 2003 over a controversial security bill, the Hong Kong streets erupted in protest, forcing a Beijing climbdown.

But by 2014, China was more secure in its ability to withstand popular pressure. As a consequence, the so-called “Umbrella Movement” failed to secure its goal of direct elections for the Hong Kong Chief Executive position.

Growing ever bolder in its attempts to impose its will, China has in recent years simply ignored Hong Kong’s special status. “Undesirables” like booksellers – whose only offence has been stocking unflattering tomes of Chinese leaders – have been extraordinarily rendered over the Hong Kong border.

Understandably, this has riled pro-democracy and civil liberties campaigners, who are fearful for a future where the territory’s Basic Law protecting their freedoms lapses in 2047.

It is against this drumbeat of greater Chinese interference in Hong Kong’s affairs that the latest crisis has played out.

Superficially, the flashpoint occurred over whether a legal process should be set up for extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau for Hong Kong suspects accused of criminal wrongdoings.

These would have been decided on a case-by-case basis, with the authorities claiming that so-called “political crimes” would not be covered.

But nobody in Hong Kong was fooled by the rhetoric. There is no rule of law in China, only the rule of the Communist Party.

Arbitrary detention, show trials, and torture are rampant within the system, and suspects would have disappeared within it.

Had the principle of extradition to an illegitimate justice system been conceded, it would surely only have been a matter of time before Chinese pressure would have extended its writ to human rights and democracy defenders.

Hong Kong remains the only place in China where, for example (and much to Beijing’s annoyance), the regime’s crimes of Tiananmen Square in 1989 can be commemorated or even mentioned.

Hong Kong’s free speech will always remain a tempting target in any Chinese crackdown on dissent, which is all the more reason why Beijing should not be allowed any legal loophole to exploit it.

What is remarkable about this whole episode, though, is not that China once again tried to overstep the mark, but that Hong Kong successfully repelled its attempt.

When a tearful Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, announced that the extradition law was being iced for the time being on account of overwhelming opposition that had seen some two million Hong Kongers take to the streets, it showed that even in the most unlikely of circumstances and when all hope appeared to be lost, people power could prove decisive.

China’s government balked in the face of public dissent because it feared the consequences that its bullying behaviour could have wrought.

That should give all those concerned about China’s aggression – whether at home in the context of the curtailment of freedom and democracy, in its near abroad through the seizure of territory in the South China Sea, or further afield where it uses its economic might to demand financial and political concessions – some hope.

For Hong Kong’s people have shown that China remains susceptible to the power of domestic and international opinion, and that a concerted campaign of resistance together with a united front of criticism can yield results even in an authoritarian dictatorship accustomed to getting its own way.

China is a great power which will play a major role on the world stage for many years. As Hong Kong has shown, whether that is constructive or destructive will depend on our response to Chinese actions, as much as those actions themselves.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.