A proposed extradition law that is supposed to address the legal loopholes allowing fugitives to hide in Hong Kong boomeranged and triggered the worst political crisis in the city since the 1997 handover.
Beginning on June 9, 2019, Hong Kong was rocked weekly by demonstrations which often ended in a violent confrontation between a small splinter group and the police force. The barricade of the police headquarters on the night of June 26 and the storming of the legislature on the July 1 at the 22nd anniversary of the handover reminded everyone of the danger that erstwhile peaceful pattern of Hong Kong demonstrations runs the risk of spinning out of control. It takes only a handful of extremists to hijack an otherwise peaceful protest. The organized supply of riot gears to the demonstrators in its confrontation with the police and the seizure of home laboratory making volatile TATP bomb reinforced the anti-government conspiracy theory being bandied around.
The police adopted a more pro-active approach since the July 1 storming of the legislature. It moved against the splintered radical group once they seriously challenged the police cordon and forced the violent street clashes to end much earlier at night.
The government suspended the bill on June 15, and the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam took the blame and admitted the communication breakdown between the government and the public for triggering the public uproar. She said the government would listen more to the voice of the people. However, the demands put forward by the organizers: complete withdrawal of the legislative proposal; dropping all charges against the protesters; retraction of a categorization of the clashes as a “riot”; setting up an independent inquiry into the police tactics against protesters; resignation of the Chief Executive and implementation of genuine universal suffrage in the city were sensitive, or outright illegal, and could not be fully met. All signs are that the current impasse will continue for some time.
An organized social dialogue to put the demonstration to rest is not likely in the near feature, but a gradual simmering down scenario, possibly aided by protest fatigue, is more likely to happen. This was the case in previous large-scale public protests and fits more the Hong Kong tradition. During all of the previous upheavals, the government stepped back by withdrawing from the controversy that triggered the turmoil; the police stepped up its presence to restore order and then appoint an inquiry commission to address the demands of the protester. The public usually accepted the compromise, and unrest died down.
The situation today is murkier, the mistrust between the government and the public goes more profound than the earlier conflicts, and the necessary political skill to assuage raw emotions to die down appears absent thus far. Moreover, there seem to be orchestrated voices to rail against the government. For the government to regain the initiatives, looking at the series of communication mistakes of the government helps.
A Murder That Exposes the Shortcoming of Hong Kong Extradition Law
The inability to extradite Chan Tong-kai to Taiwan for trial over the murder of his girlfriend, another Hong Kong resident, Ms Poon Hiu Wing, exposed the shortcoming of the Hong Kong colonial-era extradition law. The legacy makes Hong Kong a favorite haven of fugitives from jurisdiction, particularly from mainland China, Macau and Taiwan.
The international body, Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in 2008 described the absence of good extradition law a ‘most significant deficit’ of Hong Kong and recommended ‘as a matter of priority’ to pass a new version of the law. Though the criticism was downplayed to ‘a legal shortcoming’, it is clear an updated new extradition law is needed. Accordingly, the government proposed just such an extradition law before the legislature in February 2019.
The government must adopt a bolder approach in making its case. It should not just listen to what the people say; it must proactively explain its action to the public.
The proposed law immediately caused an uproar among the political opposition and later the business community. After some consultations with the different chambers of commerce, amendments were introduced to tighten up the grounds of extradition. The latest version accords much more legal rights to the accused subject than a customary extradition treaty and empowers the Hong Kong court to decide on the merits of extradition. However, the debate over the bill was soon cast by its detractors as “Trojan Horse” subjecting Hong Kong residents to the whims of corrupt mainland officials and its supposedly unreliable judicial process.
The government failed to explain the new amendments to the public, and the communication blunder allowed the legal argument to be turned into a political debate which triggered the subsequent rallies.
Communication Is More Than Listening, Making Your Case Is the Aim
The decision to push through the second reading of the bill on June 12 after the mass demonstration of June 9 proved to be the biggest blunder of the government. As the Chief Executive’s failed to conduct another round of public consultation to answer charges levied against the new law, she was perceived to be aloof and ignoring the voice of the people. The violence on that night and the subsequent rally on June 16 reflected the widespread public resentment over that decision.
In the subsequent rallies that the police were forced to use reasonable force to maintain public order, the government often failed to make its case on the necessity to do so. The instigators, on the contrary, were highly adaptive in presenting the case as one of police brutality and using excessive force. If one compares law enforcement practices around the world, the Hong Kong police’s conduct in dealing with protesters is unquestionably among the most civil. The police did not fire a single shot at the protesters even though dozens of them had suffered beatings and injuries from weapons and missiles thrown by the demonstrators. This communication failure to the public is damaging to the morale of the officers and encourages the radicals among the demonstrators.
The tough stand of the government now and the rally supporting the police on July 20 could be the turning point in boosting the police morale. However, to heal the divisions in the community, and to avoid becoming a lame duck, the government must adopt a bolder approach in making its case. It should not just listen to what the people say; it must proactively explain its action to the public and stop agitating fake news from spreading. Ironically, the colonial law against rioting and challenge to authority gives the government ready legal tools to defend itself. The government should use these laws and adopt new communication skills to bring back order to the city.