The grip that Beijing now holds over Hong Kong’s obedient, bureaucracy-based leadership has been further underlined by proposed legislation to allow extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland, Macau and (in theory) Taiwan, which critics say would, in fact, be extremely damaging to the city’s standing as an international center for business and commerce.
There was no demand in Hong Kong for such legislation, which would inevitably spur opposition overseas as well as locally. But Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam evidently felt obliged to insist that this was a reasonable and practical step which would help stop murderers avoiding justice. The excuse for introducing a law has thus focused on the case of a Hong Kong teenager named Chan Tong-kai, who is wanted in Taiwan for the murder of his girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing, and then dumping her body in a field.
The law would, in theory, enable Chan to be extradited to Taiwan. However, it is extremely unlikely that Taiwan would make such a request under the proposed law. Taiwanese are themselves terrified of the consequences of such a law, which would make it easy for mainland authorities to bring cases against Taiwanese visiting Hong Kong, particularly those with any record of supporting Taiwan’s status quo or representing a more liberal Chinese culture than available in the Communist Party-dictated mainland.
The Hong Kong administration originally declared that no one would have anything to fear as extradition would have to be agreed by the courts of Hong Kong which retain a high degree of autonomy. However, fears for judicial independence are growing as judges are appointed by a government which naturally favors those more susceptible to mainland demands. Appeals can anyway always be made by the Hong Kong government to the judicial arm of the National People’s Congress (NPC) to over-ride decisions made by Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal.
In fact, it is an entirely one-sided offer that is not part of a formal extradition treaty of the sort which Hong Kong has with several jurisdictions which have well-regarded, politically-independent judicial systems.
Fears of the law being abused have already led to the government offering to exclude from it a range of commercial and business-related crimes. This was in response to an outcry from businesses worried that they would be targets of harassment. Detentions of Hong Kong and other businessmen on the mainland for dubious reasons, if not outright extortion, are well known.
Meanwhile, there is also plenty of evidence of mainland authorities using kidnapping from Hong Kong and elsewhere, as in the case of Hong Kong-based booksellers, one holding a Swedish passport, and of billionaire Chinese-Canadian businessman Xiao Jianhua in January 2017, who was abducted from his hotel room in Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel.
Although the Chinese government has never announced Xiao’s detention, he apparently managed assets for the relatives of members of the so-called Jiang Zemin faction, including the children of Zeng Qinghong and Zhou Yongkang. China, it appears, would rather have a means of extraditing such figures rather than kidnapping them. There are said to be many other such businessmen hiding from the long arm of China’s law.
It is also a curious commentary on the Hong Kong government’s definition of justice that businessmen should get exemptions from the process of law, meanwhile others would likely face extradition for “crimes” that would normally be regarded as political or fall under ever-widening definitions of national security and subversion which can make it a major crime to question, for example, China’s claims over the South China Sea or the historic rights of the non-Han majorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, or rights to religious practices such as by Muslims.
In Hong Kong itself, the business-oriented Liberal Party, which usually supports the government has called for more exemptions in return for backing the legislation.
The implications of the law are so wide that it has drawn pungent criticism from a wide range of organization that normally confine themselves to commercial or social issues. Most prominent is the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong but a range of 10 organisations representing ethnic Chinese in the US and Canada have also come together to express concern. A British parliamentary report suggested that instead of One Country Two Systems Hong Kong was headed for One Country and One and a Half Systems.
As if to underline that remark, the government’s website in Chinese on the Basic Law has been changed so that the first items is the PRC Constitution, not the Basic Law itself.
Opposition abroad as well as at home underlines the dangers to the city’s international position as a hub for trading both goods and ideas, meeting place for the global Chinese community and centre of best practice in a range of service industries, legal included.
Lam herself, a lifelong civil servant, may have a limited understanding of the wider implications of the proposed law. But even she must now realize that by bending so readily to Beijing pressure, she has created an issue which did not exist. This legislation, if pushed through, could do more damage than the long-postponed legislation required under the Basic Law to define treason, subversion, theft of state secrets, and other purported infractions. The fact is that in doing Beijing’s bidding for China’s domestic control purposes, the damage from the unintended consequences would be disastrous for Hong Kong’s international investment and global business confidence.