Lam Wing-Kee, a well-known book seller, recently moved to Taiwan because he no longer feels safe in Hong Kong, a city he loved and where he spent most of his life. He fears that if Hong Kong’s new extradition bill becomes law, Beijing would want him extradited to the mainland because of the kind of books he sells. Hong Kong and mainland China don’t currently have an extradition treaty, but a new bill seeks to change that.
Lam isn’t being paranoid. He is known to sell gossip books full of unverified details of the corruption and abuse of power by top mainland Communist leaders, including China’s President Xi Jinping. In 2015, he suddenly disappeared, along with several Hong Kong publishers. Clueless families and friends only learned later that Lam was detained by mainland police while crossing the mainland-Hong Kong border. Lam was never officially charged and was released after eight months of what he described as “mental torture” in a mainland detention facility. You can’t blame him for not wanting to go through this ordeal again.
The fact that a long-time Hong Kong resident doesn’t feel his rights to freedom of expression and due process are protected in Hong Kong anymore says a lot about Hong Kong’s decline from once being the freest city in Asia. Right before the United Kingdom’s government officially handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the Hong Kong legislature passed an extradition law, which prohibits the city from surrendering criminal suspects to “any parts of China.” According to the “one country, two systems” agreement between Great Britain and Beijing, Hong Kong is supposed to maintain its independent judicial system for 50 years.
Hong Kong’s independent judicial system enables it to establish extradition treaties with more than 20 countries, including the United States. Most of these countries do not have extradition treaties with mainland China because they are concerned that suspects, especially those Beijing deems political troublemakers, will not receive due process or a fair trial on the mainland. These countries were assured by Hong Kong authorities that criminal suspects extradited to Hong Kong will not be passed on to mainland China.
Hong Kong’s independent judicial system also ensures that Hongkongers enjoy a level of political freedom that is beyond reach for mainland Chinese. This is a political oasis for dissenting Chinese. Since 1997, it has been the only place in China where certain political activities deemed “criminal” by mainland authorities are still legal and permissible, including pro-democracy protests and the annual candlelight vigil commemorating victims of 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Such activities have annoyed Beijing to no end.
Beijing Will Have Hong Kong in the End
As mainland China becomes rich and powerful, Beijing has become less tolerant about Hong Kong’s “differences” compared to the rest of China and has sought to exert a greater degree of control. In recent years under the assertive President Xi, Beijing has felt emboldened to send mainland Chinese police to Hong Kong to arrest Hong Kong booksellers and a Chinese tycoon, bypassing Hong Kong’s own judicial system.
Hongkongers are deeply unhappy about both incidents because they think Beijing is breaking its promise to respect Hong Kong’s judicial independence. They are disappointed in Hong Kong authorities’ inability to protect their residents’ legal rights and due process.
Yet Beijing isn’t backing down. This April, the Hong Kong legislature, which is stacked mostly with pro-Beijing legislators, proposed a new extradition bill, which will allow Hong Kong to extradite wanted criminals to mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan as well as other countries not covered by Hong Kong’s existing extradition treaties.
On the surface, this new proposal was prompted by a murder case. A Hongkonger who resided in Taiwan ran back to Hong Kong after Taiwanese authorities charged him with murdering his Taiwanese girlfriend. Hong Kong and Taiwan don’t have an extradition treaty because Hong Kong authorities adopted Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is part of China. So pro-Beijing legislators said the change in Hong Kong’s extradition law is needed to send the alleged criminal back to Taiwan.
But legal scholars pointed out that “there had long been a case-by-case arrangement under the existing ordinance, to allow Hong Kong to transfer fugitives to places it lacked an extradition deal with.” Therefore Hong Kong doesn’t need a new extradition bill if it wants to send the murder suspect back to Taiwan.
Many Hongkongers are concerned that if the new extradition bill becomes law, Hong Kong authorities, under Beijing’s pressure, will also surrender anyone wanted by Beijing based on trumped-up charges. Critics of Beijing, pro-democracy activists, and human rights activists would be at risk.
Extradition Would Eradicate Hong Kongers’ Freedoms
Their concerns are valid. Hong Kong’s political environment has become more restrictive in recent years. Four pro-democracy legislators were disqualified for modifying their oaths of allegiance to China during their swearing-in ceremony. Hong Kong authorities refused to issue visas to several human rights activists and foreign journalists, including Victor Mallet of the Financial Times.
Nine leaders of the 2014 Umbrella movement that demanded universal suffrage in Hong Kong were sentenced to prison. Even Hong Kong’s once-cherished academic freedom is under constant interference from Beijing, whose overarching goal is to “rein in criticism and silence unrest.” Professors who supported the pro-democracy movement suddenly couldn’t get their papers published or receive the next appointment or promotion they deserve.
Like frogs in slowly boiling water, Hongkongers have been uneasy with the gradual erosion of their freedom but their responses since the 2014 Umbrella movement have been somewhat muted. The extradition bill seems to have become the last draw. Opposition to this bill is widespread, from a faction of legislators, legal scholars, and business people to ordinary citizens. It has rejuvenated the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
In last month alone, Hongkongers staged multiple protests and the most recent one drew more than 100,000 attendees. Even some pro-Beijing legislators have asked Carrie Lam, the Beijing-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong, to scrap the bill and “accept a counterproposal to give the city’s courts the authority to hear cases involving Hong Kong suspects abroad.”
But there is little sign that Lam will back down. Political insiders said this bill is Beijing’s political loyalty test. When facing opposition, Beijing’s only strategy is to crack down, not back down. If Lam can’t deliver it, her political career will be over and Beijing will simply find someone else who can.
Hong Kong used to be the freest city in Asia and one of the freest in the world. Its independent judiciary, protection of freedom of expression and thought, plus low taxes and light regulations, transformed a sleepy fishing village into a modern symbol of prosperity and freedom. Dr. Milton Friedman used scenes from Hong Kong to open his popular PBS series, “Free to Choose.”
Should the extradition bill become law, however, it will ultimately spell the death of the freest city we have known. It’s truly a tragedy of our times that a great city is slowly dying in front of us.