Since last summer, Hong Kong has worried that it might be caught in the crossfire of the US-China trade war. That worry has receded. But another issue, much more fraught, has emerged and rekindled the fear of communism embedded in the hearts of Hong Kong’s people.
In late March, the government announced its intention to amend the law on extradition and mutual legal assistance to enable it to send people wanted by Beijing to be tried on the mainland. This came as a shock. Hong Kong has never sent fugitives to the mainland, where legal procedures are not always adhered to and where suspects have been forced to confess on television before a trial.
Even the business community, which usually supports the government, objected to the proposal. Some pro-establishment legislators also questioned the need for such legislation. Pro-democracy legislators attempted to delay scrutiny of the bill, leading to fist fights in the legislature.
In 1998, a year after the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the government’s Security Bureau informed the legislature that it was “aiming at working out an arrangement” for rendition and had “started exploratory discussions with the relevant mainland authorities”. No agreement was ever reached.
The proximate cause for the current extradition bill was the murder in Taiwan of a Hong Kong woman. Her boyfriend confessed under questioning in Hong Kong. He was convicted of related money-laundering charges and is now serving a 29-month term. The bill was designed to enable Hong Kong to return him to Taiwan to face murder charges.
But Taiwan has said it will not accept the suspect if its own nationals may be subject to extradition to the mainland under the new extradition law. The need for such controversial legislation has been questioned by the United States, Britain and the European Union.
Some opponents of the bill, led by former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, flew to the United States to seek support. On Wednesday, the day before Chinese Vice Premier Liu He’s arrival in Washington for trade talks, the delegation testified before a bipartisan commission and asked for immediate action to help stop the extradition bill.
In succeeding days, it met US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The delegation obtained endorsements from several key congressmen as well as Pompeo. The State Department reported: “Secretary Pompeo expressed concern about the Hong Kong government’s proposed amendments to the Fugitive Ordinance law, which threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law.”
These remarks angered Beijing. On Friday, Wang Zhimin, China’s chief representative in Hong Kong, summoned 250 members of the party faithful, mostly deputies to China’s National People’s Congress and the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, to hear him deliver a brutal attack on foreign critics of the extradition proposal. According to some people present, Wang singled out Pompeo and Kurt Tong, the US consul general, in his attack.
Although the screed was delivered behind closed doors, it was clearly meant for a wider audience. Immediately afterward, Tam Yiu-chung, the only Hong Kong member of the Standing Committee of the NPC, gave the media a detailed account of what Wang had said.
Tam said Wang had defended his almost two-hour-long remarks by saying that since foreigners had been expressing views on the extradition proposals, the central government should have the right to express its views as well.
According to those present, Wang had said that if China couldn’t put its own citizens on trial within its own borders, it would be tantamount to giving Hong Kong extraterritoriality.
Wang’s outburst has rendered impossible any objective discussion of the extradition bill. He said that it had to be passed as is, without any change or amendments, and would be retrospective. He rejected all suggestions, such as not extraditing Hong Kong residents to the mainland or holding trials in Hong Kong of those suspected to have committed offenses on the mainland.
That makes any scrutiny of the bill by the legislature superfluous. James Tien Pei-chun, founder of the Liberal Party, said that as a result of Wang’s speech, “the pro-establishment camp will all fall in and support it”. Thus, the bill will now be easily passed because “it has become a mandatory mission” from Beijing.
This is extremely unfortunate. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had said that the bill was her idea and not a directive from the central government. Now, Beijing has made it her mission and that of everyone else who wants to be seen as patriotic. Ironically, this means that her autonomy has been undermined, even while Beijing was ostensibly voicing its support for her.
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