The chain of events that led to Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since the territory reverted to Chinese sovereignty 22 years ago began not with a stern directive from Beijing, which has staunchly asserted its authority over the former British colony in recent years, but rather with a homicide in Taiwan.
The murder of a young Hong Kong woman in Taipei, allegedly by her Hong Kong boyfriend who then returned home to evade justice, set in motion a series of miscalculations that led to massive protests on June 9, and again on June 12, over proposed amendments to the territory’s extradition ordinance.
The changes would have allowed Hong Kong, which enjoys autonomy over all areas except for foreign affairs and defence, to send fugitives back to jurisdictions with which it does not have formal extradition treaties. These jurisdictions include Taiwan but also, far more controversially, mainland China where the Chinese Communist party maintains an iron grip over the country’s courts.
On Saturday Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, was forced to shelve those amendments indefinitely, emboldening local activists whose campaign for greater democracy in the city of 7.4m people has been repeatedly rebuffed since Chinese president Xi Jinping assumed power seven years ago.
While the original miscalculation was Mrs Lam’s, her move was initially welcomed by senior Beijing officials who were later caught off guard by the scale of the protest movement. In the end, according to people briefed on the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring between Hong Kong and Beijing over recent months, it was Mr Xi’s administration that made the decision to pull the amendment — a rare and embarrassing climbdown for China’s powerful president.
Ms Lam, saying she had taken pity on the family of the murdered woman, announced her intention to revise Hong Kong’s extradition bill in February without consulting Beijing. “It was all Carrie,” said one former senior Hong Kong official.
“The dead girl’s mother petitioned her and Carrie promised to do what whatever it took to send the [accused boyfriend] back to Taiwan. But why she made it all-embracing is anyone’s guess. Maybe she just saw an opportunity to wrap up an old issue.”
If any officials in Beijing had qualms about any possible unintended consequences that might stem from Mrs Lam’s proposal, it was impossible to speak out against what from the Chinese government’s perspective would be a very welcome development.
Beijing has long been frustrated by the ability of corrupt Chinese government officials, business people and others to flee to Hong Kong. “I don’t see why Hong Kong should shield any fugitives,” said Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, reflecting the official view in Beijing. “They should co-operate with any place that wants to extradite them.”
The Chinese government typically supports Hong Kong chief executives, whose selection by a committee of pro-establishment figures in the territory is pre-determined by Beijing. “There was zero pressure from Beijing until it became an issue of confidence [in Mrs Lam], whereupon they came out all guns blazing,” added the former Hong Kong official.
In an interview with the BBC last week, conducted shortly after violent clashes between police and protesters outside Hong Kong’s legislature dominated global headlines, China’s ambassador to the UK defended Mrs Lam’s original bid to amend Hong Kong’s extradition law. “This case is about rectifying the deficiencies [and] plugging the loopholes of the existing legal system,” Liu Xiaoming said.
But the ambassador was also the first senior Chinese official to publicly confirm Mrs Lam’s insistence that the decision was hers alone, and had not been prompted by any lobbying from her bosses in Beijing. “As a matter of fact, the central government gave no instruction, no order about making this amendment,” Mr Liu said. “This amendment was initiated by the Hong Kong government.”
Mr Liu’s statement was important because by confirming that the original idea was Mrs Lam’s and not Beijing’s, it provided an exit path before another scheduled mass demonstration on Sunday. “It is out of Hong Kong’s control,” one senior government official told the Financial Times late last week as Beijing deliberated whether Mrs Lam should proceed or not.
At a press conference called on Saturday to announce the indefinite suspension of the amended bill, Mrs Lam used language similar to the “self-criticisms” by senior Communist officials that Mr Xi has emphasised over recent years to strengthen party discipline.
“I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and dispute in society, disappointing many people,” she said. “We will adopt the most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements so that we can continue to connect with the people of Hong Kong.”
Additional reporting by Yizhen Jia