Hong Kong’s Sovereignty Under Threat from Extradition Bill

As if a US-China trade war wasn’t enough worry for free trade-and- China dependent Hong Kong, the city’s international utility is again being undermined by a combination of local government incompetence and Beijing’s arrogance.

The issue of the proposed bill to enable extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland, Macau and Taiwan was already causing anxiety. The local business community had pushed for all kinds of exemptions to protect their special interests, and foreign business groups had expressed strong concern.

Pro-democracy groups were even more alarmed and Taiwan warned of the consequences for its citizens. The mainland had been specially excluded from extradition arrangements made with a few countries prior to the 1997 handover on the grounds that the legal system was unreliable and anyway was, by its own admission, subservient to the dictates of the Communist Party, which controls the judicial as well as legislative and executive branches of government.

The bill met with fierce opposition and delaying tactics from pan-democrats in the legislature and even normally obedient pro-government voices acknowledged that the bill was unpopular and the issue was doing major damage to the image of Chief Executive Carrie Lam. But she pressed ahead nonetheless, insisting it was urgently needed to extradite a Hong Kong resident accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan – though Taiwan was reluctant to accept him on the basis of this would-be law.

The bill itself clearly exposed Hong Kong people to being accused of crimes on the mainland which were based on political views, business rivalries or personal vendettas. The worry was then compounded by Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, which ever more is becoming the puppet master manipulating Lam almost at will and is now directly leaning on business figures who are normally government supporters but who, as in this case, have reservations about some policies.

Liaison Office director Wang Zhimin delivered a blistering attack on opponents of the bill and said there would be no amendments to it, thus making it plain that he was the top executive in the territory and would order the government majority in the legislature to do what it was told.

Leading business figure James Tien, scion of a major local family and former head of the business-oriented Liberal Party, made it plain that whatever their personal views pro-government legislators now had no choice but to back government efforts to ram through the bill.

The Liaison Office had said that the extradition bill was a “matter of sovereignty” for Beijing. It is quite likely that the majority of business interest representatives in the legislature will change the procedural rules to push it through without delay. Wang also attacked foreign governments and business groups which had criticized the bill as though they have no right to question Hong Kong’s claims to be a separate commercial and legal entity.

Local US and other western interests as represented by the American Chamber of Commerce are clearly worried that such talk will bring forward the day when their governments decide to revisit Hong Kong’s special status. Much more rhetoric like that of Wang certainly threatens to bring the territory directly into any trade war rather than, as now, an exposed bystander.

The legislation is already viewed with concern in Taiwan, already working hard to reduce its dependence on southern China factories and the Hong Kong link. Mainlanders too, who have been eager for Hong Kong residence and parked billions of dollars in its “safe” property and other asset markets may have second thoughts.

Kidnappings of persons from Hong Kong to the mainland are not unknown. In recent times they have included local booksellers who published books embarrassing to the mainland and a billionaire mainland businessman. But an extradition arrangement would make it very much easier and less obvious and earn less negative attention from foreign governments and the press.

For foreigners as well as locals, the extension of the concept of “sovereignty” as seen in this case also raises concerns about other increasingly broadly interpreted terms as such as what constitutes subversion or sedition. These as well as the likes of “theft of state secrets” and “establishing ties with foreign bodies” are due to be dealt with in the long-delayed enactment of implementation of Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, which gives the local government the right to enact a deeply unpopular security law. In 2003 that proposed law drew an estimated 500,000 protesters to the streets, the biggest such protest since the Chinese takeover.

Lam may see her making a big issue out an extradition bill which came almost out of nowhere as reason for further delay in tackling Article 23. Indeed, on April 28, a crowd estimated by protesters at 130,000 turned out carrying yellow umbrellas and signs accusing Lam of selling out the city.

But Beijing knows it is only a matter of time before Lam and her business-interest cohorts are prevailed upon to obey the sovereign and align Hong Kong’s laws, and their interpretation, with those of Beijing. A major protection for those who oppose the mainland government appears inevitable.