UBC held a roundtable event on June 18 to discuss Hong Kong’s controversial extradition bill, which has spurred mass protests within the city and made international headlines.
The event, “Taking it to the Streets: Hong Kong’s Resistance to the Extradition Bill,” was hosted by the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, the department of history, the UBC Hong Kong Studies Initiative, the Centre for Chinese Research and the Institute of Asian Research.
The panel brought together scholars of Hong Kong and China to examine issues of autonomy, democracy and dissent.
The bill, which would allow the extradition of suspects to mainland China, was suspended on June 15 in response to opposition from Hong Kong citizens, who fear it will empower China to punish political dissidents.
But protests continue as the city’s residents face off with police and demand the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
The situation is reflective of Hongkongers’ perception of their declining autonomy, according to associate professor of Chinese history Dr. Leo Shin.
After Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, there was the expectation that a “one country, two systems” arrangement would afford Hong Kong judicial and economic autonomy from the mainland and the promise of democratic elections.
But the government rebuffed demands for universal suffrage in the city by disqualifying pro-democratic political candidates and jailing the activists who led the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a 79-day protest that called for transparent elections.
“I think it’s fair to say that there has been a gradual clamping down on dissent in Hong Kong…the latest bill is really the last example of that,” said Shin.
“The bill may have its own merits and demerits, but what people are concerned [about] most is that it is yet another step, and a very important step, that [contributes to] the taking away of freedom in Hong Kong,” he said.
The Hong Kong government says the bill comes with safeguards that will protect citizens from human rights abuses by China.
In a press release issued in response to protests, the government argued the bill is “grounded firmly in the rule of law.”
According to Dr. Pitman Potter, professor and director of Chinese Legal Studies at the Allard School of Law, China’s legal system takes a distinct view on the rule of law, and its party documents “make it abundantly clear that law in China serves the political interests of the party.”
Potter cited cases of China’s human rights abuses and its hypocrisy on the world stage as evidence of the country’s self-serving legal interpretations.
“The presumption of innocence, open trial and visiting rights, banning forced confessions and the right to appeal do not exist in China in any meaningful way. Period,” he said.
Over the past few weeks, millions of marchers in Hong Kong have expressed their frustration with the bill.
“Hong Kong at the moment, almost alone in the world, is standing up for our fundamental values, for the belief in democracy…for the belief in the rule of law, for the belief that people have a right to determine their own future,” said Dr. Diana Lary, professor emerita in the department of history.
Much like the 2014 movement, the protests have a large youth presence.
“I witnessed a lot of young students, kids actually, going there to protest peacefully, and they ran the risk of their lives,” said Dr. Wai Yip Ho, associate professor in the department of social sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong.
“They are the defenders of the future of Hong Kong.”