The Hong Kong government’s proposed amendments to existing extradition laws have sparked fears that it will be easier to send criminal suspects to mainland China, where they could face unfair trials.
Jessica Washington reports from Hong Kong
In Mandarin Chinese, the phrase "sòng zhōng" can mean to send something to China – but it also carries a less innocuous meaning.
Another phrase with exactly the same pronunciation also means to farewell a loved one who is dying.
It is a convenient pun for those who oppose proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws.
They believe the amendments spell the beginning of the end for Hong Kong.
"If they pass this, Hong Kong will die," 17-year-old Kenny told SBS News. "We need to fight for our future so that doesn’t happen.”
Hong Kong witnessed its largest street protest in at least 15 years on Sunday as crowds massed against plans to allow extraditions to China, a proposal that has sparked a major backlash against the city's pro-Beijing leadership.
More than a million people turned out for the mammoth protest, organisers said on Sunday - the largest demonstration since the city's handover to China.
"There are 1,030,000 people at today's march," an organiser told crowds gathered outside the city's legislature, prompting a cacophony of cheers and applause.
People marched in blazing summer heat through the cramped streets of the financial hub's main island in a noisy, colourful demonstration calling on the government to scrap its planned extradition law.
The city's pro-Beijing leaders are pushing a bill through the legislature that would allow extraditions to any jurisdiction with which it does not already have a treaty -- including mainland China for the first time.
Dense crowds chanting "Scrap the evil law!" and "Oppose China extradition!" stretched for miles.
The Hong Kong government has proposed to amend extradition laws so that authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau could request the extradition of someone living in Hong Kong, who they suspect of committing a crime.
Independent legislator Claudia Mo is one of the most high-profile opponents of the extradition amendment. Like many who oppose the changes, she believes the differences between legal systems in Hong Kong and mainland China make any such arrangement untenable.
"They are trying to shut down Hong Kong as a dissent haven because they are fed up with all the noise from here," she said.
"What next for Hong Kong? I really don’t know."
Activists have been protesting in Hong Kong since April when the Hong Kong government introduced the amendment bill.
Protest actions in Hong Kong this weekend were mirrored in Melbourne and Sydney on Sunday where supporters said the targeting of political dissidents is a live issue.
The proposed amendment has angered many Hong Kong citizens and foreigners who feel that it not only puts Hong Kong's legal system in jeopardy, but also the very idea of Hong Kong itself and what it stands for.
"If you put a frog in boiling water, the frog will jump out. But if you slowly turn up the heat, the frog won’t know it’s boiling," said journalism professor Keith Richburg at the University of Hong Kong.
"We are seeing a slow bleed. Slowly laws are being put in place to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy."
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has repeatedly said she is simply trying to close a legal loophole and that requests would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Australians on Hong Kong put at risk
The bill could apply to anyone in Hong Kong – even foreigners simply transiting through, regardless of their citizenship, and that could put some of the 100,000 Australians living in Hong Kong at risk.
Under the "one country, two systems" framework first formulated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, the preservation of Hong Kong’s legal system was one of the fundamentals agreed upon by the British and Chinese governments, when the handover occurred in 1997.
But now, many fear that is no longer the case and that China's government will manipulate charges to target dissidents and political opponents.
“We know that China is very effective at crafting reasonably justified criminal offences against individuals who it views as being critical of the state,” Hong Kong University law lecturer Sharron Fast said.
“We do not have assurances on how Hong Kong courts will deal with the political motivations of Beijing on these issues.”
Free speech threat
Critics of the bill have been quick to point out how the differences in Hong Kong’s legal system compared to that of the mainland could put Hong Kong nationals and foreigners at risk.
“Until the Chinese government is able to prove to us that its criminal justice system does not arbitrarily detain individuals, that there are fair and transparent judges, that the use of torture is not endemic… until all of these assurances are met, Hong Kong cannot in good faith extradite individuals to China,” Ms Fast said.
"China has a record of prosecuting individuals for speaking out on matters such as independence or criticising the Communist Party. So it’s a definite risk for people in Hong Kong to be able to speak freely."
Free speech has become a fundamental part of Hong Kong’s identity – apart from Macau, Hong Kong is the only place in Chinese territory which can openly commemorate events like the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Just last week, more than 180,000 people gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for the vigil – a record crowd.
Many believe the reason for the turnout was not just because it was the 30th anniversary of the massacre – but because people wanted to send a message of defiance to the governments of China and Hong Kong.
"The temperature has been turned up little by little," Mr Richburg said.
"People are slowly becoming aware that the freedoms they’ve enjoyed are gradually being eroded."
- with AFP