Protesters in Hong Kong are facing down riot police, rubber bullets and fire hoses to defend their right to protest at all, as China threatens the semi-democratic island’s freedoms through a new extradition law.
The proposed law would allow China to extradite Hong Kong citizens to the mainland on criminal charges punishable by seven or more years in prison. However, critics worry the law will be used to snare people the ruling Communist Party deems a threat through vague, ill-defined national security-related offences or economic crimes. China has used similar charges to jail many individuals over the years, including Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.
Human rights activists and business leaders say the extradition law could erode the global perception that Hong Kong is a safer, more democratic option for investment than mainland China. It could also give Beijing the power to jail activists and protesters who are currently free to speak their minds.
“It’s a proposal, or a set of proposals, which strike a terrible blow … against the rule of law, against Hong Kong’s stability and security, against Hong Kong’s position as a great international trading hub,” Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, told Reuters.
More than a million people have turned out to protest the move in Hong Kong over the last week. Many of them wore black clothing and masks, while others marched holding umbrellas — a symbol of political activism in the island city.
WATCH: Hong Kong protests erupt in chaos and violence
The ruling Communist Party uses the government-run courts to crush free speech and political activism in China, but Hong Kong enjoys greater freedoms as a self-governed territory. The island’s democratically elected government allows public protests, free speech and freedom of the press — all of which are banned on the mainland.
China took possession of Hong Kong in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal that allows the former British territory to maintain much of its independence, including elements of democracy and free speech that are not tolerated on the mainland. However, Beijing has been accused of trying to claw back many of those freedoms in recent years by abducting critics and charging Hong Kong citizens when they visit mainland China.
China has offered to bring the self-governed island of Taiwan back into the fold under a similar deal. However, Taiwanese critics have cited rollbacks in Hong Kong as proof that Beijing can’t be trusted.
READ MORE: What is the Hong Kong extradition bill?
Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.
The bill is the latest in a string of Chinese attempts to exert greater control over Hong Kong’s more open society.
For example, China convicted four activists earlier this year for designing a liquor bottle that commemorates the massacre in Tiananmen Square — a topic that is strictly banned in all its forms on the mainland.
The ruling Communist Party marked the 30th anniversary of the massacre last week with an editorial justifying it as a “vaccine” against political unrest.
China also faced intense criticism in recent years for allegedly kidnapping several bookstore owners who sold banned books in Hong Kong.
China’s foreign ministry repeated its support for the bill at a briefing on Wednesday, saying that it will make it harder for violent criminals to take refuge in Hong Kong. Spokesperson Geng Shuang also denied accusations of meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs in a way that would violate the “one country, two systems” deal.
“Hong Kong people’s rights and freedoms have been fully guaranteed in accordance with law,” he said.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam says she will push the bill through the pro-Beijing legislature despite public protests. However, she agreed to back down from scheduling the vote amid the public backlash.
Lawyers, students, business people and workers in Hong Kong say they’re worried Beijing is chipping away at their autonomous legal system, which gives their economy important competitive advantages.
“The reason so many people invest in Hong Kong is because we are governed by the rule of law and have a good human rights record,” shop owner Alan Li told Reuters on Wednesday. “If the extradition law passes, I believe investors will leave.”
Li was among more than 100 retail owners who shuttered their businesses for the protests on Wednesday.
WATCH: Hong Kong shop owner closes business in show of solidarity with protesters
“When the fugitive extradition bill is passed, Hong Kong will become a ‘useless Hong Kong,’” Jimmy Sham, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, told Reuters. “We will be deep in a place where foreign investors are afraid to invest and tourists are afraid to go.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping promised early this year that he would not surrender more freedoms to the territories over which China claims sovereignty, including Hong Kong and the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
READ MORE: Why China isn’t ready to invade Taiwan – yet
Taiwanese authorities also oppose the extradition bill, which could expose its citizens when they visit Hong Kong.
Hong Kong currently has extradition deals with 20 countries. However, it explicitly excludes China because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
—With files from Reuters and The Associated Press