Hong Kong extradition: Who is China targeting?

June 03, 2019 16:12
Chief Executive Carrie Lam insists on having the fugitive bill enacted into law despite the growing opposition to the proposal. Photo: CNSA

Hong Kong has been getting an inordinate amount of global attention these days, as is perhaps appropriate for a place that likes to call itself “Asia’s world city”. But it isn’t the kind of publicity most cities want, given the choice.

Last week, Britain and Canada issued a rare joint statement voicing concern over Hong Kong’s plan to allow the extradition of suspects to stand trial in mainland China. The communists who run China, of course, are the reason why most Hong Kong families left China in the first place.

“We are concerned about the potential effect of these proposals on the large number of UK and Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote. “Furthermore, we believe that there is a risk that the proposals could impact negatively on the rights and freedoms set down in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

The statement came six days after 11 European Union diplomats met Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to hand her a formal protest stating human rights concerns over the government’s proposed amendments to Hong Kong’s Fugitive Offenders Ordinance.

Two days before that came the news that Germany had granted refugee status to two Hong Kong political activists charged with rioting, the first time Hongkongers were granted asylum anywhere. They had been given permission by a judge to attend an event in Germany and skipped bail.

Hong Kong has extradition agreements with 20 countries, but not with mainland China or Taiwan. In the aftermath of a 2018 suspected homicide in Taiwan by a Hong Kong resident, the government this year proposed legislation to allow extradition to all jurisdictions with which it doesn’t have a treaty.

The murder suspect is currently serving a prison term in Hong Kong on related money-laundering charges but will be eligible for release in October. Hence, Hong Kong said there was an urgent need to pass the bill.

But the concern within Hong Kong and overseas isn’t with Taiwan but with China, which is notorious for its lack of rule of law. The judicial system is run by the Communist Party and legal procedures aren’t always followed. Years of Hong Kong-mainland talks on a rendition agreement were fruitless.

While Hong Kong has never sent any fugitives to China, the mainland has used an administrative arrangement since 1990 to send 128 fugitive offenders back to Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, hundreds of corruption suspects from the mainland are reportedly hiding out in Hong Kong, beyond Beijing’s grasp. The new extradition law proposed by Chief Executive Lam will among other things enable Beijing to request their extradition. But political activists fear that they may be targeted by China. The abduction of booksellers is cited as evidence of China’s desire to seize political offenders.

On corruption, some local businessmen are concerned that their past mainland activities, such as gift-giving or outright bribery when such activities were common, may land them in trouble.

Lawmakers, academics and others have called for human rights safeguards in the legislation. Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah responded that, when necessary, the government could “top up protections” without putting safeguards in the bill.

This is a surprising stance since Beijing may not take kindly to Hong Kong “topping up” human rights protections where it is concerned. From a diplomatic standpoint, it would be far better to apply high human rights standards across the board.

The government has rejected suggestions that it unbundle the Taiwan murder case from its proposal to plug the legal extradition “loophole”.

But it has had to make some concessions to the business community. One was that only extradition requests from the central government would be considered, not from provincial authorities, despite the deep provincial involvement in the Hong Kong economy.

Ironically, this has rendered unlikely the possibility of sending the murder suspect to Taiwan since Hong Kong accepts Beijing’s position that Taiwan is a part of China. Taiwan’s cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council insists that Taiwan be accepted as a sovereign entity for extradition purposes.

Now, the Hong Kong government no longer says that the bill must be passed urgently because of the Taiwan case. Recently, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said, “The more important point is to get the bill enacted in the first place, so that we can have a legal basis to take things forward.”

Few believe that if Beijing asks for anyone’s extradition, Hong Kong’s chief executive will ever say no. After all, the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, states clearly that one of the chief executive’s functions is “to implement directives issued by the Central People’s Government”.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.