March Hare

What finally decided me to join the protest march on 9 June was a telephone conversation the day before with my 20 year old daughter, now studying at university in the United States.

She said I had to take part because everyone knew I was pro-China and very supportive of the government and if they saw me there perhaps they would stop and think again about going ahead with the amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition arrangements. It was a nice thought, if somewhat overestimating the influence of someone retired for 10 years after 34 years in the public service.

But what was it that had caused me in the first place to even consider taking part in the march? To understand, we need to go back to the beginning which was the murder of a Hong Kong girl while on holiday in Taiwan with her boyfriend. The government, from the outset, conflated two different issues. One was the natural desire to see the alleged perpetrator returned to the island for trial. The second was the need, highlighted by the case, for an overall review of our extradition arrangements including to other parts of greater China.

The first was important, albeit an individual episode, and carried a degree of urgency. The second was also important, with very wide implications, which required thorough deliberation and a measured pace. The government was trying to use the speed required for the first to justify a curtailed process for the second. Hence the decision to allow less than three weeks for the public consultation phase instead of the more normal three months. By coincidence, the government was in parallel consulting the public on draft proposals to curtail cruelty to animals. This subject, while also important, could hardly be described as more deserving of the longer period for the public to submit its views. In my experience, whenever an exercise begins on a half-truth it runs the risk of going wrong.

The second strand of the government’s PR case was hardly more convincing: the suggestion was advanced that this whole issue had been somehow “overlooked” in 1997 when Hong Kong’s legislation on extradition was being finalised. The sheer implausibility of the suggestion led to it quickly being dropped even before those with direct knowledge of the matter could rebut it.

Reference to the handover year drew attention to the fact that this issue has been known about for over 20 years, and indeed there has been public mention of talks with the Central People’s Government in the ensuing period. But these talks on a possible rendition agreement have never reached a successful conclusion. I cannot recall any explanation being given as to what the sticking points were. Nor has there been any explanation of how these obstacles have been magically overcome by the recent murder. Surely Hong Kong people are entitled to a full accounting.

After the initial highly critical public reaction, particularly from the business community, to allowing removal to the mainland, the government made a number of changes to its draft. Nine of the 46 charges included in the existing legislation were dropped, reducing the number for which one could be extradited to 37. The minimum sentence threshold was raised from one year to three, then raised again to seven. Applications would only be accepted from the highest judicial authority in the requesting country/territory.

While these changes were welcome, there were still the human rights issues, judicial independence and guarantee of a fair trial. Security minister John Lee Ka-Chiu duly went to the Legislative Council and assured Members that China’s judiciary ranked quite highly in an international study on the subject of independence. Unfortunately for him, this statement juxtaposed with one from President Xi Jinping saying that China must not make the same mistake that western countries had by allowing the judiciary to be independent. The governing party had to remain supreme.

Much was made of the role of Hong Kong judges in the extradition process, which would provide a level of safeguard. However, legal scholars clarified that the role of judges in extradition cases is somewhat limited. Rather than include the right to a fair trial and other human rights issues in the primary legislation itself, the government offered to make a policy statement on the matter in Legco. The Hansard record would solve the problem, except of course that it wouldn’t because a statement on the record this week can be overturned by a different statement from a different administration next week.

Finally there was the claim that the chief executive alone had the final say and could even defy a direct order from the CPG. Quite how this could be reconciled with the Basic Law was never explained.

All the while in the background was the drumbeat that opponents didn’t understand. Not the law, not the changes, not the additional safeguards.

Not surprisingly, many young people found the government case less than convincing. Most wanted a speedy resolution to the Taiwan case, tackled on a one-off basis, followed by a comprehensive review of extradition/rendition. I found myself agreeing with this approach so I decided to march.

A few words about the march itself. The attendance was far and away the highest since the Tianmen ones of 1989. Quite why the police decided three westbound lanes on Hennessy Road would be adequate we will never know. Suffice to say, very quickly the three eastbound lanes had also been taken over, and later still, four more lanes on Lockhart. Even then, people were still making their way from Victoria Park to Admiralty well into the evening. Marchers were of all ages, but from my observation the majority were students and young adults in their 30s and 40s. The posters were creative and funny – especially the one likening all the officials involved to characters in Game of Thrones. The slogans were very specific. “Extradite to mainland, disappear forever” said it all. The Government’s immediate reaction that evening was to stand firm, but the violence on the following Wednesday caused a welcome change of heart.

So thank you to the one million fellow marchers for helping save Hong Kong from a disaster. And a big thank you to Tiffany for nudging me to play my part.