Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

Why is Hong Kong's China extradition plan so controversial?

AFP-JIJI, Reuters, AP, Staff Report

Hong Kong’s government has delayed but not given up on a bill that would allow extraditions to any jurisdiction with which it does not already have a treaty — including mainland China.

Officials say it is needed to prevent the city from becoming a refuge for fugitives, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam says safeguards are in place to protect free speech and to ensure political cases will not be affected.

She also argues that the law meets international standards for human rights, and that only serious crimes that carry sentences above seven years will be considered.

A broad cross-section of society has opposed the legislation, including lawyers and influential legal bodies, business figures and chambers of commerce, journalists, activists and Western envoys. Their fears center on the city’s 7.3 million inhabitants — or even those just passing through the airport — getting tangled up in China’s opaque and politicized courts.

The Legislative Council delayed a session on the bill on Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters blocked entry to the building and paralyzed the Central District.

The overwhelmingly young crowd of demonstrators filled nearby streets, overturned barriers and tussled with police outside the government headquarters and offices of the council.

The government’s press service said the session of the Legislative Council would be “changed to a later time to be determined” by the council secretariat. Council members would be notified of the time of the meeting later, the statement said.

In the first official reaction to the latest protests, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung called on demonstrators to unblock key arteries, withdraw and “not defy the law.”

News of the postponed debate did not deter the swelling crowds.

“It’s not enough to delay the meeting,” said student Charles Lee. “Stalling is not our ultimate goal. We need them to consider scrapping it. … Clashes are unavoidable if they adopt this attitude towards their citizens.”

A protester who gave her name only as King said the protest was a watershed moment for Hong Kong’s young generation, who face difficult job prospects and skyrocketing housing prices. “We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away,” she said.

The reluctance of protesters to be identified by their full names and professions — many wore surgical masks to obscure their facial features — reflected an increasingly hard-line approach to civil unrest by the authorities. Such actions are never tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong residents can face travel bans and other repercussions if they cross the border.

Police used water cannons and pepper spray on protesters outside the Legislative Council building and held up signs warning demonstrators they were prepared to use force.

On Sunday, more than 1 million people, by some estimates, turned out against the bill in one of the largest mass protests seen since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The scene was reminiscent of the 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” in which protesters occupied Hong Kong’s major thoroughfares in a bid to force Beijing to abandon its plan to preselect candidates for the territory’s leadership elections.They have plunged Hong Kong into a political crisis, just as the 2014 demonstrations did, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing.

Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The Japan Times by email: “Unlike 2014, this time the anti-extradition coalition consists of broad sectors including businessmen, lawyers, professionals, in addition to NGO activists and student participants. This is the reason behind the momentum.

“The Carrie Lam administration has badly mishandled the ‘selling’ of the extradition bill. Beijing’s strong support makes it worse because the majority of Hong Kong citizens want to thumb their nose at the Xi administration, which has been squeezing Hong Kong.”

He added: “Assuming the momentum continues to grow, e.g., the students/NGO activists now effectively ‘occupying’ a good part of Central, we may see a repeat of 2003: the indefinite postponement of Article 23, the hated National Security Legislation” that would prohibit “any act of treason, secession, sedition” or “subversion” against the central government.

Chinese President “Xi Jinping, having handled the U.S. trade talks badly, has suffered a loss of authority and prestige. He dares not use the PLA garrison in Hong Kong. Otherwise the Hong Kong economy will be even worse hit.”

Sunday’s protest was widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland. Xi has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.

Carrie Lam was elected in 2017 by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites and was widely seen as the Communist Party’s favored candidate.

The Legislative Council includes a sizable camp of pro-Beijing lawmakers.

Those in Hong Kong who anger China’s central government have come under greater pressure since Xi came to power in 2012.

The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of Hong Kong’s rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is currently being investigated on charges of leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.

In April, nine leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.

In May, Germany confirmed it had granted asylum to two people from Hong Kong who, according to media reports, were activists fleeing tightening restrictions at home. It was the first known case in recent years of a Western government accepting political refugees from Hong Kong.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a lawyer and member of Carrie Lam’s administration advisory committee, said the new protests show a lack of trust in Hong Kong’s administration, partly because Lam was selected by a small number of electors rather than by popular vote. However, China’s patience with Hong Kong’s demands has its limits, Tong said.

“We need to gain the trust and confidence of Beijing so they can allow us the freedom of political reform,” Tong said. “They don’t want to see Hong Kong as a base of subversion. And I’m sorry, we’re doing exactly that.”

Richard Cullen, a visiting law professor at Hong Kong University, told The Japan Times by email: “I hope the protests will be resolved by bringing them to close without harm to protesters or the police. From what I can see, once again Hong Kong police are doing as good a job as any police force could in dealing with very great challenges.

“After the OCM (Occupy Central Movement), I asked numbers of people, especially those who complained about the Hong Kong police, to name to me any other police force anywhere that could have done a better job. This question was usually met with silence — sometimes a comment that they should have done better. True — we can all do better almost always.

“I am concerned to see how apparently organized to cause disruption and resort to violence the protesters are. On TV I have seen protesters digging up paving bricks — these were a primary weapon used against police in the Mong Kok riot in 2016” after the government cracked down on street hawkers, sparking clashes that have been called the worst since the 1960s. “I watched the Mong Kok riot live on TV. in 2016. It was simply horrifying.”

Hong Kong’s appointed leaders are increasingly perceived to be doing the bidding of Beijing, and there is little trust in their assurances that the law won’t affect the city’s prized independent judiciary or its wider freedoms.

Under the 1997 handover agreement with Britain, China has agreed to a 50-year deal under which Hong Kong is able to retain key liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

The city’s courts and rule of law, built around the British legal system, are key to the financial hub’s economic success.

However, many accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms and interference with local elections.

Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.

Hong Kong has established extradition agreements with some 20 countries since the 1997 handover. The proposed amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance would allow the return of those accused of crimes to jurisdictions with which it has no extradition deal, including mainland China and Taiwan.

The idea of Hong Kong being a refuge for fugitives was never high on the political agenda, but after a Hong Kong man murdered his girlfriend while on vacation in Taiwan and fled back home, local authorities seized on the case to call for an overhaul of the law.

Despite confessing to Hong Kong police, authorities were unable to extradite him because the two territories do not share an agreement.

The extradition law was born, covering any place Hong Kong doesn’t have a specific agreement with — including mainland China for the first time.

But critics say the Taiwanese case is a Trojan horse to please Beijing.

Taiwanese authorities have strongly opposed the bill, which they say could leave Taiwanese citizens exposed in Hong Kong, and have vowed to refuse taking back the murder suspect if the bill is passed.

The bill has also raised concerns among dozens of countries, including Britain and the United States, as foreign citizens living in or visiting Hong Kong would also be put at risk of extradition.

The government has, however, made some concessions, such as cutting extraditable crimes from 46 to 37 categories, and applying the bill only to crimes punishable by seven or more years in prison, up from three years.