Why proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition law fuelled protests

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam suspends a proposed extradition bill indefinitely

A placard is displayed during a protest following a day of violence over a proposed extradition bill, near the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

A placard is displayed during a protest following a day of violence over a proposed extradition bill, near the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

 

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has said she will suspend a proposed extradition bill indefinitely following widespread anger and violent protests.

The extradition bill, which if passed, would cover Hong Kong’s seven million residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling in the city, had many concerned it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.

What does the extradition bill involve?

The Hong Kong government first launched the proposals in February, putting forward sweeping changes that would simplify case-by-case extraditions of criminal suspects to countries beyond the 20 with which Hong Kong has existing extradition treaties.

It explicitly allows extraditions from Hong Kong to greater China - including the mainland, Taiwan and Macau - for the first time, closing what Hong Kong government officials have repeatedly described as a “loophole” that they claim has allowed the city to become a haven for criminals from the mainland.

Hong Kong’s leader would start and finally approve an extradition following a request from a foreign jurisdiction but only after court hearings, including any possible appeals. However, the bill removes Legislative Council oversight of extradition arrangements.

If the bill becomes law in the future, it will be possible for mainland Chinese courts to request Hong Kong courts to freeze and confiscate assets related to crimes committed on the mainland, beyond an existing provision covering the proceeds of drug offences.

Why was the Hong Kong government pushing it ?

Officials initially seized on the murder last year of a young Hong Kong woman holidaying in Taiwan to justify swift changes. Police say her boyfriend confessed on his return to Hong Kong and he is now in jail on lesser money-laundering charges.

Taiwan 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.

A long-forgotten issue, the need for an eventual extradition deal with the mainland was acknowledged by government officials and experts ahead of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” model.

The city maintains a separate and independent legal system as part of the broader freedoms the formula guarantees. Little progress has been made in discreet talks since then with justice and security officials on the mainland, where the Communist Party still controls the courts.

How strong was opposition to the bill?

Concern about the amendments had spiralled in recent weeks, taking in pro-business and pro-Beijing elements usually loath to publicly contradict the Hong Kong or Chinese governments. Senior Hong Kong judges have privately expressed alarm, and mainland commercial lawyers based in Hong Kong have echoed their fears, saying the mainland system cannot be trusted to meet even basic standards of judicial fairness. Hong Kong lawyers’ groups have issued detailed submissions to the government, hoping to force a postponement.

Authorities have repeatedly stressed that judges will serve as “gatekeepers” or guardians for extradition requests. However, some judges say privately that China’s increasingly close relationship with Hong Kong and the limited scope of extradition hearings will leave them exposed to criticism and political pressure from Beijing.

Schools, lawyers and church groups have joined human rights groups to protest against the measures. Following a brawl in the legislature over the bill, the government moved to fast-track the bill by scrapping established legislative procedures that stoked outrage amongst critics.

Foreign political and diplomatic pressure over human rights concerns is rising, too. As well as recent statements from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and his British and German counterparts, some 11 European Union envoys met Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to protest formally.

“It’s a proposal, or a set of proposals, which strike a terrible blow ... against the rule of law, against Hong Kong’s stability and security, against Hong Kong’s position as a great international trading hub,” Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, said on Thursday.

Some opposition politicians say the issue now represents a turning point for the city’s free status.

Will the government drop the bill?

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has said she will suspend a proposed extradition bill indefinitely.

Ms Lam said in a press conference that she took the decision in response to widespread public unhappiness over the measure.

However, Ms Lam and her key officials had previously been strident in defending the bill both publicly and privately.

Ms Lam said the government would study the matter further.

She said: “After repeated internal deliberations over the last two days, I now announce that the government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise.

“I want to stress that the government is adopting an open mind. We have no intention to set a deadline for this work.”

Ms Lam said she would “adopt a sincere and humble attitude in accepting criticism” over the government’s handling of the issue.

Before the press conference, Ms Lam had insisted that broad safeguards mean that anyone at risk of political or religious persecution or who faces torture would not be extradited. Likewise, no one who faces the death penalty would be extradited. China denies accusations of human rights abuses. –Reuters