Pitfalls in Carrie Lam proposal for extradition deal

March 14, 2019 07:30
The more Chief Executive Carrie Lam publicly defends her proposal the more she puts a global spotlight on the mainland’s notorious judicial system. Photo: HKEJ

If the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has any sense, it should withdraw without further delay the poorly thought-out proposal for an extradition arrangement with mainland China. The more Lam and her top officials publicly defend the proposal the more they put a global spotlight on the mainland’s notorious judicial system.

Even pro-government business groups and politicians are so alarmed by the proposal that they want economic crimes excluded from any extradition agreement. Only the most slavish Beijing loyalists back the proposal. It takes a lot of guts for government-friendly political parties to openly say the mainland’s judicial system is so flawed that it makes them apprehensive about a wide-ranging extradition treaty that includes economic crimes.

Hong Kong’s previous post-handover administrations had so little trust in the fairness of mainland courts compared to courts here that after more than 20 years of negotiations they still couldn’t reach an extradition deal with Beijing. Is it wise for Lam’s administration to remind the world of this distrust even as Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong? By pushing for a quick deal she is, in fact, inviting criticism that openly washes the dirty laundry of the mainland’s judicial process.

The government’s ostensible reason for a treaty is that it wants to accommodate Taipei’s request to extradite a Hong Kong citizen accused of murder in Taiwan. Since there is no treaty between the two places, the government argues it’s the right time to have case-by-case treaties with places that lack agreements with us, including the mainland and Macau. This is a lame reason.

If the government’s sole intent is to send a suspected Hong Kong murderer back to Taiwan to face trial, then it can easily do a one-off deal with Taiwan, as many politicians have suggested. But doing that would trigger a political storm because even a one-off deal with Taiwan which excludes any deal with the mainland would suggest Taiwan is separate from China.

This puts Lam between a rock and a hard place. There is a suspected murderer in Hong Kong but for him to face trial in Taiwan, Lam must have an extradition agreement that includes mainland China. Taiwan has made clear it will not accept a deal that makes it appear as a part of China. Hong Kong’s opposition has made clear it will not support a deal that includes China. And pro-government groups have made clear they will not accept an arrangement that includes economic crimes.

Adding to the government’s dilemma is the very real possibility that Western countries which now have extradition agreements with Hong Kong could re-think their agreements if they feel suspects they extradite to Hong Kong could be extradited to China if Hong Kong has a treaty with Beijing.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has already made clear to the Lam administration that a treaty with China would ruin Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe place for international business. AmCham slammed China’s legal system as plagued by deep flaws, lack of an independent judiciary, arbitrary detention, lack of fair public trials, lack of access to legal representation, and poor prison conditions.

The US Consul General in Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, told me in a TV interview that, depending on the details of a Hong Kong extradition arrangement with the mainland, the US may have to re-think its agreement with Hong Kong. This is what I mean about our government putting a global spotlight on China’s notorious legal system by insisting that a case-by-case extradition agreement with Taiwan must also include mainland China.

Some business groups have suggested a treaty that excludes economic crimes. The former police commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung proposed dealing with violent crimes first and white-collar crimes later. Both suggestions are preposterous if the issue is that China’s legal system cannot be trusted to be fair. Why should those who commit economic crimes be protected against an unfair judicial system but not those who commit crimes such as murder? Surely, everyone is equal before the law.

The leader of the Civic Party, Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, told me in a TV interview that it’s illogical to only exclude economic crimes if the reason is that China’s judicial system is unfair. But is China’s judicial system really deeply flawed and lacks independence as AmCham claims? I asked several lawyers, pro-government politicians, and opposition legislators.

Speaking on condition they not be named, they said the answer can be found in China’s arrest of two Canadians whom Beijing accused of spying after Canada arrested Huawei’s top financial executive Meng Wanzhou at the extradition request of the United States for alleged Iran sanctions violations and other crimes. Meng is out on bail, lives in her Vancouver mansion, and has sued Canada for unlawful arrest, but the two Canadians Beijing arrested are not even allowed to see a lawyer, let alone sue Beijing.

Such comparisons can only hurt China’s image as it pulls out all the stops to be a global superpower. I don’t know if Chief Executive Carrie Lam is under orders from Beijing not to do an extradition deal with Taiwan alone, or if she is second-guessing Beijing by insisting there cannot be a Taiwan deal without a Beijing deal.

But if she is a chief executive who will fight for Hong Kong’s interests, as she told me in a TV interview after she won the election, then she needs to explain to Beijing that in the case of the accused murderer, the only thing that Hong Kong people want is to serve justice by sending the murder suspect back to Taiwan for a fair trial. It has nothing to do with politics about whether or not Taiwan is part of China.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.