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Hong Kong Was a Refuge for Mainland Chinese. The Extradition Bill Could Change That.

HONG KONG — Minnie Li understands what is at stake with the contentious Hong Kong bill that would allow extraditions to China. A Shanghai native, she moved to Hong Kong in 2008 to study sociology and then stayed, she said, because she enjoyed its freedom of speech and other civil liberties that are absent in her increasingly authoritarian homeland.

Ms. Li is so worried that the proposed law would toll the bell on human rights in Hong Kong that she joined nearly a dozen other activists last week in a 103-hour hunger strike. She sat on a bridge enduring the blazing heat, pouring rain and riot police shooting tear gas at protesters below her — under an orange banner that said in Chinese, “Hunger strike to show my determination.”

For many mainland Chinese, Hong Kong has long been a refuge that affords a relatively high degree of safety while also serving as a way to stay connected to the mainland. If passed, the extradition bill could change all that.

“It would be like opening a hole in Hong Kong’s legal system,” exposing anyone to the risk of facing trial in the mainland where the legal system is opaque, said Ms. Li, 34, a lecturer at the Education University of Hong Kong. “It would create a white terror that makes you feel that you dare not do anything or say anything that might violate the rules in the mainland.”

Public anger over the bill has driven some of the largest demonstrations in Hong Kong’s history in the past 10 days, throwing the city into a political crisis and forcing its embattled leader, Carrie Lam, to suspend the bill indefinitely and apologize. She has not fully withdrawn the bill, as protesters have demanded.

The bill’s opponents included recent arrivals like Ms. Li, who is among nearly one million people from the mainland who have moved to Hong Kong over the past two decades, increasing the city’s population to about 7.5 million. Many come to Hong Kong not necessarily seeking political refuge, but for schooling, health care and jobs. That influx is part of the reason many Hong Kong residents are frustrated and anxious about their city’s future, and have protested that the new arrivals are overwhelming the city’s public health care, housing and other social services.

Yet Hong Kong has a long tradition of welcoming mainland Chinese seeking refuge. In the late 1800s, the territory was a sanctuary for Sun Yat-sen, the medical doctor who brought down China’s last imperial dynasty. Millions of mainland Chinese fled for Hong Kong in the late 1950s through 1970s in a tumultuous period that spawned mass famine and political upheaval. After the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on student-led pro-democracy protesters, an underground pipeline called Operation Yellowbird smuggled dissidents to Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong has always been a settlement place for political refugees from the mainland,” said Bao Pu, a publisher and human rights advocate from Beijing, who has lived in Hong Kong and the United States since 1989.

“This is the tradition of what Hong Kong is,” said Mr. Bao, whose father, Bao Tong, was the highest-ranking Communist Party official to be imprisoned after the Tiananmen protests.

Since June, more than 350 people describing themselves as recent immigrants from mainland China to Hong Kong have signed a petition opposing the extradition bill and stating that it could create “serious and irreversible damage.”

The petition laid out a range of concerns commonly cited by human rights groups about China’s Communist Party-controlled security apparatus and judicial system, including forced confessions and closed trials. As cautionary examples, the petition cited imprisoned human rights lawyers and the 2015 disappearance of several individuals from Hong Kong linked to a publisher of racy, rumor-filled books about China’s top leaders.

“The rule of law has been built for centuries,” the petition reads. “We must defend it to the end.”

Some from mainland China who have sought refuge in Hong Kong in the past are sounding alarms. Ma Jian, an author whose first book was banned by the Chinese government, arrived in Hong Kong at the end of 1986 when he found it was getting more and more difficult for him to live in the mainland. He moved to Germany in 1997 when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, and eventually settled in London.

Mr. Ma said he had returned to Hong Kong frequently since then but never felt in danger until last November, when his talk at a literary festival about his novel “China Dream,” a satire of contemporary China, was briefly canceled. He traveled to Hong Kong anyway, and while the talk ultimately was reinstated, he had a friend accompany him at all times for fear he would be secretly kidnapped and smuggled to China.

The extradition bill, he said, would be the end of freedom in Hong Kong. “You feel like you are in a port of freedom but authoritarianism is approaching,” said Mr. Ma, who said he participated in the hunger strike from afar.

Recent arrivals from mainland China said they worried that the mere introduction of the bill could usher in a new era of self-censorship in Hong Kong.

For Huang Wenhai, 48, a cinematographer who moved to Hong Kong in 2013, the case of the Hong Kong booksellers marked a turning point in the newfound freedom of speech he experienced after arriving in the territory. Because of the incident, a Hong Kong-based publisher wanted Mr. Huang to make changes to a book he had written about independent documentaries in China to avoid topics deemed sensitive by the mainland authorities. He refused and found a publisher in Taiwan instead.

The extradition bill has been another turning point, he said.

“It isn’t just creative people who will find their freedom of speech being limited, but there will also be an impact on businessmen and even regular people,” said Mr. Huang, who also signed the petition.

“It will create a universal fear,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they censor you or not, you will start your own censoring process.”

Dai Haijing, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong from Shanghai, said she feared that the bill could curtail sensitive academic research and nonprofit activities. “It doesn’t have to be the law that stops people,” she said. “As soon as there is a fear in everyone’s heart, there will be impact.”

In interviews, few mainland Chinese in Hong Kong said they had made plans to leave, but some said they had started thinking about where they could go. “Everybody in Hong Kong who I have spoken to is asking is there somewhere else they can go,” said Azan Marwah, a human rights lawyer in Hong Kong. “Should they be preparing to leave?”

Ms. Li, the university lecturer from Shanghai who participated in the hunger strike, said she feels strongly connected to Hong Kong and wants to stay. However, when asked if she would start a family in the territory, she said she would move.

“This environment is not suitable for me to have kids,” she said. “I would feel bad for my kids to grow up here.”

Nearly 90 hours into the hunger strike, Ms. Li was sent to the hospital on Saturday night suffering from low blood sugar, a fever and dehydration. As soon as she was discharged on Sunday, she returned to protest.

Source: NYT > World

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