Authorities in Hong Kong have shut down government offices and postponed debate in the Legislative Council, one day after riot police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray at tens of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to protest a bill that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China. On Wednesday, demonstrators attempted to storm the Legislative Council Building, where lawmakers are debating the extradition bill. Human Rights Watch criticized Hong Kong authorities for using what it described as “excessive force” to suppress peaceful demonstrations. Protesters described police using indiscriminate force. We speak with Mary Hui, a Hong Kong-based writer and reporter for the news outlet Quartz. She has reported on the extradition bill and has been covering the protests.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Hong Kong, where authorities have shut down government offices and postponed debate in the Legislative Council, one day after riot police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray at tens of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to protest a bill that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China. On Wednesday, demonstrators attempted to storm the Legislative Council Building, where lawmakers are debating the extradition bill. Human Rights Watch criticized Hong Kong authorities for using what it described as “excessive force” to suppress peaceful demonstrations. Protesters described the police using indiscriminate force.
KATY LAM: The Hong Kong police actually fired tear gas towards the crowd, while no people are showing any symptoms of attacking. So, they’re just doing it. We think that they are trying to oppress our rights of expressing our opinion, and actually oppressing the freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: This came days after as many as a million protesters marched in Hong Kong against the extradition bill Sunday. The protests are some of the largest Hong Kong has seen since before Britain’s handover of Hong Kong in 1997. Since then, Hong Kong has operated under a different legal and political system as mainland China, a setup known as “one country, two systems.” Critics of the extradition bill say it would infringe on Hong Kong’s independence and the legal and human rights of Hong Kong residents, as well as the people visiting Hong Kong.
We go now to Hong Kong, where we’re joined by Mary Hui. She’s a Hong-Kong based writer, reporter for the news outlet Quartz. She has reported on the extradition bill and has been covering the mass protests.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mary. Can you start off by talking about the significance of this bill that was passed? Just explain it.
MARY HUI: Sure, and thank you for having me, Amy.
The significance of this bill, really, is that it will threaten Hong Kong’s prized judicial and legal independence. It is as Chris Patten, the former governor, has said: There needs to be a firewall between Hong Kong’s legal system and China’s. And with this bill, should it be passed, that firewall will be done away with. And it means that it is—it will mean the death of “one country, two systems,” because there will no longer be this firewall, and people will be—there is the possibility that people will be able to be extradited to China to face charges, where they face an uncertain fate as to whether they will face a fair trial or even have their human rights protected.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Mary Hui, could you outline what the key features of this proposed amendment is—are?
MARY HUI: Sure. So, as the law currently stands, Hong Kong has signed extradition treaties with 20 other jurisdictions, the U.S. being one of them. And what this law is trying to do is to work around that. And under the current law, the People’s Republic of China is actually explicitly ruled out as a place that people can be extradited to, and so there is no extradition at all to China under the current law.
And last year, there was a murder case. A young Hong Kong couple traveled to Taiwan. The boyfriend was accused of murdering the girlfriend and fled back to Hong Kong. And because China sees Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China, there is no extradition between Hong Kong and Taiwan. And so, the Hong Kong government has then come around and said, well, there is this major loophole in that this suspected murderer is not able to face any charges and won’t face justice.
And so they took this opportunity to say, “We have to reform and amend this bill to make sure that this person can—this suspected murderer can face charges and be brought to justice. And how do we do this? We plug this loophole”—in the language of the government—”by doing away with the restriction of the People’s Republic of China and saying that there can be one-off extradition agreements between Hong Kong and China.”
AMY GOODMAN: I want to read a recent tweet from the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, wrote, on Twitter, said, “At the Hong Kong literary festival in November, a friend accompanied me at all times, for fear I’d be secretly kidnapped and smuggled to China. If the extradition law passes, any critic of Xi’s regime could be legally, openly abducted. It would be the end of freedom in Hong Kong,” Ma Jian said. Your response, Mary Hui?
MARY HUI: I think that is a very, very reasonable fear. And people are afraid of that, not just writers of Chinese descent, but also foreigners. Hong Kong is a financial hub, an international media hub. There are lots of human rights advocacy groups here. And for them, if it means doing—if doing their work means angering China, then they will very likely be accused of committing a certain crime, and China will be able to find a way to have them extradited to face charges in China, in mainland China. And so, what this means is that China will be able to use this bill as retaliation against opponents, whether it’s Hong Kong Chinese or foreigners who are traveling to or based in Hong Kong.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mary, could you explain who’s behind this proposed amendment? And why is it being proposed now?
MARY HUI: Yes. So, really, who’s behind it is the Hong Kong government, but who’s behind the Hong Kong government is the Beijing government. The Hong Kong government has insisted that this is their own initiative. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has repeatedly said that, that this is her making, the Hong Kong government’s making, there is no instruction from the Chinese government, though the top official based in Hong Kong, the top Chinese official, has made the unusual move of trying to persuade Hong Kong politicians to back the extradition bill. So, as to whether China really isn’t behind this bill is uncertain, and I’m doubtful of that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you describe, Mary, the kinds of the protests that are taking place and the violent crackdown by the police in Hong Kong against the protesters?
MARY HUI: Mm-hmm. So, the protesters started gathering outside the central government offices on Tuesday night, local time here. And overnight, their numbers grew. And so, by the time I arrived at the protest scene, at about 9 a.m. during rush-hour traffic, tens of thousands of people had gathered and taken over just vast swaths of this highway outside of the central government offices.
And so, from the looks of it, it was calm, quiet for much of the morning. I was there until about 2 p.m. And really all I saw were protesters being very well organized. They had set up supply stations. They were collecting umbrellas to repel against pepper spray and tear gas that they were expecting to be fired at them. They were collecting water and medical supplies. They were erecting barriers around the protest site. They were handing out masks to passersby. People were insisting that I take their masks, as a journalist, because they expected tear gas to be fired. And so, people were—there was this sense of camaraderie. There wasn’t too much really going on at that point. At points, there was a sense of tension as police and the protesters just stood 10 meters away from each other, the frontline of the protesters, police in riot gear. But really not much happened.
And it was not until around 3:30, local time here, that clashes broke out. I should say that by that time I had actually left the protest site. I had gone back to the newsroom for the rest of the day, so I did not personally see the clashes. But from what I’ve seen online, from videos that I’ve been watching, it really does not seem like protesters were the ones starting any kind of confrontation with the police. The police were trying to disperse them and ended up aggravating the crowd.
AMY GOODMAN: According to The New York Times, it’s estimated one in seven Hong Kong residents took part in Sunday’s protests. And in The New York Times on Monday, Hong Kong’s commissioner to the United States, Eddie Mak, outlined his government’s position, writing, “The Hong Kong government’s proposed amendments to extradition ilaws seek to enable us to effectively combat serious crimes by sealing the legal vacuum in our existing mechanism for surrendering fugitive offenders. They do not pinpoint any particular jurisdiction, nor do they target common citizens or affect the legal rights and freedoms of individuals.” If you could respond to that and the fact that the—what the Chinese authorities have done in the past, for example, the abducting of Hong Kong residents, five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015?
MARY HUI: Yes. There really is no trust of the Chinese government. With the protesters I’ve spoken to, that’s the one thing, really, that they have all mentioned, when I asked them, “What about the Hong Kong government’s amendments and assurances that your freedoms won’t be trampled upon?” And time and time again, the protesters tell me, “We don’t trust the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government. It’s all a bunch of lies.” And so, any assurance that the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, as they exist in Hong Kong now, will not be trampled upon, I don’t think those assurances hold any water.
AMY GOODMAN: And those booksellers?
MARY HUI: And the booksellers, of course, there is that precedent of Chinese government coming in and essentially launching this global campaign, not just in Hong Kong, but elsewhere, of state-sponsored kidnapping. And so, with the booksellers, I think people have looked at that and seen how the Chinese government will behave without an extradition bill legalizing and legitimizing their behavior. And so, with the bill, I think what we’ll see is just this legitimizing of state-sponsored kidnapping, as some people have called it.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Mary, before we conclude, what do you expect to happen next? Will this amendment pass? And do you expect the protests to continue?
MARY HUI: Mm-hmm. So, the debate over the bill in the Legislature has been postponed until next week. It’s unsure whether protesters will come out again, though my gut feeling is that if the debate is to continue and a vote is taken—and if a vote is taken, it will very likely pass, given that the Legislature is stacked with pro-Beijing, pro-China parties and politicians. Should it pass, I’m sure the anger will boil over, the popular anger will boil over, and protesters will be out again to stand for their freedoms.
AMY GOODMAN: Mary Hui, I want to thank you for being with us, Hong-Kong based writer and reporter for the news outlet Quartz, reported on the extradition bill, has been covering the protests. We’ll continue, of course, to cover all.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a professor in Arizona is met with the response of a hung jury. They refused to convict him for aiding migrants in the brutal Sonoran Desert. Stay with us.