For more than 30 years the residents of Hong Kong have demanded more democracy, first from British rulers who gave them an elected legislature and then from their new Chinese rulers, who have gradually and systematically eroded the power of Hong Kong citizens to choose their own government. Hong Kongers don’t like it, and nether should all friends of democracy and the rule of law.
The extraordinary size and passion of the pro-democracy demonstrations we have seen this week, in which perhaps 1 in 7 residents of the city took part, are stirring evidence of the failure of the Chinese strategy of slowly throttling the pro-democracy movement through kidnappings and other measures aimed at freedom of the press, disqualification of elected legislators and prosecution of leaders of the huge 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.
Meetings of the city’s Legislative Council have twice broken out in fights over a troubling draft bill that would allow for extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. Demonstrators rightly see this as a dangerous erosion of the city’s semi-independence and civic freedoms. But Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has said she will carry on with its enactment in the coming weeks. That stubborn stance will lead to heightened clashes and instability, which is one reason the Hong Kong business community, including labor unions, is opposed to the proposed law.
Ms. Lam’s administration has said the proposal simply corrects a legal flaw that prevents Hong Kong courts from considering requests for legal extradition from Taiwan, Singapore and China. As proof, she cites a case in which a Hong Kong resident allegedly killed someone in Taiwan and fled back to the city to escape prosecution.
But it’s not that simple. The prospect that China might exploit the law to go after democracy activists in Hong Kong is a very real concern and has alarmed everyone in the city, from business owners to workers to foreign residents, that China might prevail on Hong Kong courts to arrest them.
The target of the measure may be a small handful of pro-democracy activists, but the size of the demonstrations is vivid evidence that most Hong Kong citizens see the measure as a potentially fatal blow to their own freedom and Beijing’s promise that it would honor a commitment to allow “two systems” — Chinese and British-style rule of law — to coexist.
In any democratically responsive government, the demonstrations would be a signal to consult and compromise. But Ms. Lam is not popularly elected, nor is fully half of the legislature. They are chosen in an opaque system giving voice not to the citizens but to a small number of business, labor and other leaders who have shown repeatedly that they support Beijing instead of their compatriots.
According to Hong Kong’s constitution, the chief executive was to have been chosen by direct vote beginning in 2017. But when China proposed a method for selecting candidates that allowed it to control who got on the ballot, the legislature wisely rejected that proposal as inconsistent with Hong Kong’s rights.
The pro-Beijing city government has the votes to pass the extradition law. But doing so would be a big mistake harmful to both Hong Kong’s future and democracy.