A POWERFUL INSIGHT of modern psychology is that humans are hard-wired to fear loss, and will take greater risks to avoid it than to realise a gain. Such insights help to explain protests that have paralysed central Hong Kong in recent days. On June 9th hundreds of thousands of people—over a million, organisers say—peacefully marched in opposition to a government bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. Things turned nastier on June 12th, when protesters surrounded the Legislative Council building and forced a delay in the debate on the bill, scoring a temporary victory. As protesters blocked streets with metal barriers and hurled water bottles, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and threatened to use more force to disperse the crowds.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, appointed by a panel of local loyalists of the Communist Party in Beijing, talks of “plugging a loophole” with the bill. She says opponents will leave the territory a refuge for fugitives. That is to suggest that previous leaders somehow forgot to draft rules for sending criminal suspects to China.
In fact, there was no omission, says Margaret Ng, a barrister who represented the legal profession in Hong Kong’s legislature from 1995 to 2012, under first British then Chinese rule. When drafting an extradition law before the handover in 1997 officials took a deliberate decision to maintain a firewall between Hong Kong’s justice system and that of the mainland, “to protect the rule of law in Hong Kong and confidence in Hong Kong as an international hub free from China’s much mistrusted system.”
China’s law courts explicitly serve as instruments of party control, rather than as any check on state power. Hong Kong authorities note that the extradition bill excludes those accused of political crimes. That offers no reassurance, retort opponents: Chinese dissidents routinely face trumped-up charges like bribery or blackmail.
The prospect of losing the legal firewall between Hong Kong and China, in a bill that is being rushed with minimal debate, is what brought out vast crowds, many dressed in white, the colour of mourning. Several confided that this was their first time at a political demonstration. Such scenes are a surprise. By now, 22 years after the British colony became a Special Administrative Region of China, its people were supposed to have accepted the fate envisioned for them by rulers in Beijing: a life of well-fed but politically neutered domestication, like so many golden-egg laying geese. Rewards are on offer for those who comply.
Communist leaders pledged that Hong Kong’s capitalist system, independent courts and Western-style freedoms of speech and assembly would be preserved for 50 years, under the slogan “one country, two systems”. There were ambiguous promises that Hong Kong might move towards democratic elections for its legislature and for the post of chief executive.
Increasingly, though, that emphasis on autonomy has been being replaced by proposals that would leave Hong Kong merely the wealthiest and most international city in China. Hong Kong remains valuable as a global financial centre. But Communist bosses increasingly expect Hong Kong to know its place. The territory represented over 18% of China’s GDP when British rule ended in 1997, but less than 3% in 2018. Ms Lam has promoted integration with the “Greater Bay Area”, a region spanning Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland province of Guangdong.
The costs of defiance, meanwhile, have risen. In 2003 authorities shelved an anti-sedition law that Beijing wanted to impose on Hong Kong, after large street marches. Since then the central government has grown less patient, notably after Xi Jinping became party leader in 2012. In April this year several leaders of Occupy Central (also known as the Umbrella Movement), a pro-democracy campaign of civil disobedience that blocked streets for weeks in 2014, were jailed for up to 16 months for causing “excessive inconvenience” during those protests, in the words of a Hong Kong judge. Politicians have been barred from running for office unless they pledge loyalty to China.
When Chaguan last year met Benny Tai, a rumpled law professor from Hong Kong University and an Occupy Central leader, he sadly wondered when his city might witness large demonstrations again. “People are concerned that it is not safe to protest, especially in the business sector,” he sighed. He talked of “holding the line” while waiting for democracy in mainland China. It would be interesting to hear Mr Tai’s views now, but he is currently in prison.
An American newspaper this week asked if China had created a million new dissidents in Hong Kong. That is to mistake the mood. The protesters are not marching to gain new freedoms, but to avoid losing those that they still have. Anson Chan, who served as chief secretary of the Hong Kong government under the British and for the first four years of Chinese rule, spent four and half hours among the marchers on Sunday. Many probably “held out very slim hope that the government will change these proposals”, she says. “But they wanted to stand up and be counted.”
Fighting without hope of winning
In commentaries intended for overseas consumption, Chinese state media accuse “foreign forces” of trying to create “havoc” in Hong Kong. Actually, though the British and American governments have expressed concern about the extradition bill, and Congress could revoke trade and visa privileges granted to Hong Kong, this movement’s backers include prominent, local lawyers, priests and entrepreneurs. Politicians and scholars have drafted moderate compromise proposals, including a one-off arrangement to send to Taiwan a murder suspect whose case is the ostensible pretext for amending extradition laws.
It is a clarifying rebuke for China’s rulers. Exposure to their version of the rule of law feels like an unbearable loss to many in Hong Kong, outweighing the rewards of integration with a faster-growing China. Assuming that the extradition law is rammed through anyway, it will be a win for fear and resignation, not love.