Allowing extradition to China would be another nail in the coffin.
When about 130,000 Hong Kongers marched through the streets on April 28, it was the largest protest in the city-state since the Umbrella Movement in 2014. But rather than calling for democratic elections, the marchers were out for a more pressing cause—opposing a proposed extradition bill by the Hong Kong government that would enable them to send Hong Kongers to face dubious justice at the hands of mainland Chinese authorities.
The Hong Kong authorities were taken aback by the size of the protest, given that a similar march a month earlier attracted only 12,000 demonstrators. One factor was the sentencing of nine leaders of the Occupy Central movement (the precursor of the Umbrella Movement) on April 23, with four given jail sentences. Some politicians who support the government urged it to ignore public opinion and pass the bill quickly, wary about the protests growing even larger. Extraordinary scenes even took place in the legislature as a massive fight between rival lawmakers broke out on May 11 over the bill.
Besides the huge protest on April 28, the bill is coming under fire from politicians, the legal sector, and, most tellingly, the local and foreign business sectors.
The whole situation is reminiscent of the massive 2003 protest by over 500,000 Hong Kongers against a proposed national security law, which would have criminalized treason, secession, and sedition against the Chinese central government. The protests succeeded in making the government scrap the proposal. But the atmosphere in Hong Kong has changed considerably since then—and Beijing is wielding a much stronger hand.
If it is passed, this extradition bill will signal the virtual end of Hong Kong not just as a distinct city under One Country, Two Systems but also as an international business hub, because nobody in Hong Kong would be safe from the reach of China’s legal system. Most potently for Hong Kongers, it will mean the erasure of the sense of the city as something different and special—a threat to the values that the regions’ residents have come to hold dear.
This extradition bill would enable wanted individuals in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan. This would cover anybody in Hong Kong, whether residents, foreign workers, or even visitors.
The nominal cause was a gory crime committed in Taiwan. In February 2018, officials say, a Hong Kong man killed his girlfriend (also a Hong Konger) while in Taiwan, disposed of her body, and then flew back to Hong Kong before Taiwanese police could apprehend him. After the suspect was arrested by local police, the authorities found themselves in a legal quandary given that Hong Kong and Taiwan do not have an extradition agreement. Indeed, as part of China, Hong Kong does not even have official ties with Taiwan or recognize it as a country. This February, the Hong Kong authorities came out with a proposal that expanded the scope of extradition to include Macau and mainland China, stunning many Hong Kongers.
Having an extradition arrangement with Taiwan is one thing, but China is a completely different story. Taiwan is a democracy with rule of law, an independent judiciary, and other strong civil liberties. Hong Kong might not be a democracy—although it has elected legislators, their role is limited, and Beijing dominates—but its people deeply value the rule of law established under the British and still modeled on an independent court system unknown on the mainland. In China, the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, there is a 99 percent conviction rate, and arrested people are often subject to arbitrary and vague charges, not to mention held incommunicado for months and forced to give televised confessions. It doesn’t just happen to Chinese nationals, as the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who still remain in custody for “harming national security”; the Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai; and the Taiwanese author Lee Ming-che, detainedsince 2017, can attest.
China has extradition agreements with over 30 nations, including France and Laos, but those countries retain the option to decline an extradition request if necessary, as Portugal did in 2014. The Hong Kong government claims that extraditions to China would take part on a case-by-case basis, with hearings held.
But would any Hong Kong court really rule against an extradition request from Chinese authorities and would China actually put up with such a denial? Given how pliable the Hong Kong authorities have been in recent years in matters favoring China, not a chance.
By banning a Financial Times journalist, disqualifying legislators, putting Occupy Central leaders on trial, and criminalizing “insulting” the Chinese national anthem, the Hong Kong government has shown it is willing to cut back on Hong Kong’s freedoms to suit Beijing.