Academics join outcry sparked by Hong Kong’s contentious extradition bill

The bill has been suspended but protestors want it withdrawn; researchers say the plan to extradite people to mainland China could stifle academic debate.

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Demonstrators with a yellow umbrella marching in Hong Kong against an extradition bill proposed by the government

Demonstrators marching in Hong Kong against an extradition bill proposed by the government.Credit: Geovien So/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

Hong Kong's government has suspended an unpopular bill that would legalize the extradition of people from the island to mainland China to stand trial or serve criminal sentences following huge street protests that began more than a week ago. But the protests have continued – and critics are still demanding the bill’s withdrawal.

Since the bill was announced, more than a thousand academics from around the world have signed a petition against the proposed law, saying it would restrict free speech and academic debate as well as eroding personal freedoms.

At times, demonstrations against the bill, which ramped up on 9 June and involved hundreds of thousands of people, turned violent when authorities clashed with protestors.

On 15 June, Carrie Lam, chief executive of the special administrative region of China, announced that she would suspend the contentious bill. But it could still be revived in the Legislative Council.

When the bill was first introduced, Lam said that it was only meant to reduce a legal loophole that allows criminals to stay in the city, but critics say that mainland China — which does not have the same rights or legal protections as Hong Kong — would crack down on dissidents that live, visit or make flight transfers to the city.

Such a law would also infringe on academic freedom, says historian of medicine, science and technology Harry Wu at the University of Hong Kong, who signed the online petition and attended a demonstrationon 9 June.

He worries that when scientists’ offer critical analysis, under the bill, Chinese authorities would view that as criticism, or a subversion, of state power — accusations that can come with severe consequences. Last year, three doctors in Guizhou were arrested and charged with professional misconduct for allegedly misdiagnosing coal miners with black lung. Some suspect that the authorities did not want to compensate patients, he says.

Wu says that although the bill has been suspended, he is still concerned because it could be revived.

Hong Kong researchers typically feel free to observe and critically analyse events in mainland China, but if such an extradition bill ever became law, it would reduce that freedom, says Wu.

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