Sieren's China: Hong Kong is losing room to maneuver

It was the biggest mass protest in 16 years. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong last weekend. In the night from Sunday to Monday, the police resorted to pepper spray and batons. The barricades were stormed. There were casualties on both sides. The escalation is reminiscent of the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 when protesters occupied Hong Kong's financial and government district for 79 days, calling for "true universal suffrage."

A mature legal system is a strength

This time the protests were triggered by a draft bill to make it easier to extradite fugitives to mainland China. Demonstrators are concerned that the law will open the door to the arbitrary rule of law. They fear that dissidents could be handed over to a country where the judicial system is not as independent as many countries in the West, a system where confessions are often coerced and access to a lawyer is by no means guaranteed, and where the death penalty still exists. One of Hong Kong's greatest strengths is that it has one of the most well-developed legal systems in Asia thanks to the fact that it was under British rule for so long.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam insists that the law would only include offenses carrying a sentence of at least seven years. But this could be extremely harmful, considering in China there are 46 crimes on the list of capital offenses. The legal state of affairs in China can be illustrated by the case of Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish publisher critical of the Chinese government who was kidnapped from Thailand in 2015 and forcibly taken to China. In a video confession broadcast on state television, the 51-year-old was seen expressing remorse about a previous crime and saying that it was his personal choice to return to China and that he had voluntarily waived protection as a Swedish citizen.

Company heads accused of corruption have also been arrested in Hong Kong despite not violating any local laws.

The dilemma for Hong Kong is that the suspects might well be corrupt officials or criminals on the run, hiding from the Chinese authorities in the special administrative zone. On the other hand, even if they are fugitives they are unlikely to get a fair trial in the Western sense on mainland China. So it is not right to extradite them.

Read more: Hong Kong protests: 'This discontent is really about China'

Up to this point it has been Hong Kong's strength that it did not have an extradition agreement with China. In the 1980s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping gave his word to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the "one land, two systems" principle would be applied to Hong Kong when the British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. He guaranteed the status of a special economic zone for 50 years, an independent tax system and an independent judiciary. But today the Chinese government takes the view that Hong Kong is part of China and if people in China commit a crime Hong Kong has to extradite them. It says that this is not interference in Hong Kong's domestic affairs.

Fear of a loss of autonomy

But many Hong Kong citizens have gone out onto the street because they disagree. And the fact that so many are demonstrating is because they are worried about their autonomy. These protests are not only about the extradition law but also about the fear that there will be a clampdown on press freedom and freedom of assembly, both of which distinguish Hong Kong from cities on mainland China. It would be unthinkable for so many people to go out on the streets of mainland China, let alone for 180,000 to light candles for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre as they did on June 4 in Hong Kong.

Read more: Hong Kong wants democracy

Many people in Hong Kong still believe in the power of the streets and believe that protests can be successful despite Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule. In 2003, the government gave in after 500,000 people poured out onto the streets to oppose an anti-subversion law. Hong Kong's chief executive was forced to resign. The bill was dropped.

But now China is much more powerful. Peaceful elections can still take place in Hong Kong but there is much less probability that the government will give in. This is likely to trigger more protest. Thus, Beijing is helping to create a powerful opposition.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.