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Daily News editorial

Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

In 1997, Hong Kong relinquished its status as a British colony to accept an uncertain future as a semi-autonomous region of China.

The shift was never going to be seamless, or painless, because Hong Kong leans Western and open in its identity. That makes it a strange and annoying beast to China’s Communist Party rulers.

Most of the time things do run smoothly in Hong Kong, a global center for finance and business. But political tension is always present because China is powerful and its leadership is impatient to assert full control of Hong Kong. That won’t happen until 2047, according to the deal Britain struck to return Hong Kong to Chinese rule.

The conflict with Chinese control is playing out this week through a series of angry protests in the streets of Hong Kong. Residents are demonstrating against a proposed law in Hong Kong that they see as a threat to their legal protections against Chinese meddling.

Their worries are justified because — no surprise — China is encroaching.

Hong Kong’s legislature, controlled by a pro-Beijing majority, wants to pass legislation to give authorities an expanded ability to send criminal suspects abroad for trial. Hong Kong has a limited number of extradition agreements, and ostensibly the government is taking this action because a murder suspect in custody currently can’t be sent to Taiwan.

But this legislation also would allow extradition to the Chinese mainland, and that’s the rub. Two bedrock principles of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy are that it maintains an independent judiciary and respects free speech. The Chinese government may hold sway over Hong Kong politicians but it isn’t supposed to interfere in the territory’s daily affairs or its Western practices.

This law represents a potential breach. That’s why there were 1 million people at a demonstration Sunday and reports Wednesday of rioting. Because Hong Kong residents know that Chinese President Xi Jinping brooks no dissent. Given the chance, the Chinese security apparatus would seek to detain and extradite not just criminal suspects but political dissidents or other foes back to China, where the courts are answerable to the party.

Hong Kong residents who may run afoul of the Chinese authorities already feel vulnerable. In 2015, five staff members of a Hong Kong bookstore and publisher disappeared into the Chinese legal system. Just the threat of extradition on trumped-up charges would be enough to stifle democratic actions in Hong Kong. A week ago, for example, thousands of Hong Kong residents held a vigil to commemorate the 30th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre. No such protests are permitted on the mainland, of course.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, was chosen by Beijing for the job. Even so, she has a chance to pull back and rewrite this legislation in order to assure residents, and the world, that her vibrant city will protect its freedoms.

If she lets the proposal become law in the face of grave local concerns, Hong Kong would be less autonomous. That would put 7.5 million people further under the thumb of Beijing.

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