Pro-democracy lawmaker Wu Chi-wai, center, is restrained by security guards at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Saturday, May 11, 2019. Hong Kong's legislative assembly descended into chaos Saturday as lawmakers for and against controversial amendments to the territory's extradition law clashed over access to the chamber. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Legco has witnessed violent clashes between pro-government and pro-democracy lawmakers © AP

A proposed extradition law in Hong Kong has set off alarm bells not only within the former British colony but also in the international community. Popular opposition to the proposal is so strong that Hong Kong has been roiled by mass protests against the bill this week. They mark the biggest demonstrations in the territory since its 1997 handover to China from the UK.

Why such strong concern? The territory remains one of Asia’s pre-eminent centres for multinational regional headquarters and its airport is one of Asia’s busiest international aviation hubs. Critics fear the law would allow Beijing to seize anyone it likes who sets foot in the territory — from a normal resident to the chief executive of a multinational in transit — and whisk them off to mainland China on trumped up charges. 

Here is how the proposed law would work and why it is drawing some of the biggest protests Hong Kong has seen in years.

What is the proposed change?

The so-called Fugitives bill, if approved, would allow extradition of people not only to China but to any jurisdiction in the world with which Hong Kong has no existing formal agreement. Hong Kong currently has longstanding extradition agreements with 20 countries including the US and the UK.

There is no existing extradition treaty with China because under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework that came into force after Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, the territory was promised civic freedoms and “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Judicial independence is enshrined in the agreement. 

The government introduced the bill after a Hong Kong national, Tong-Kai Chan, admitted killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan, before fleeing back to Hong Kong. He is currently in prison in Hong Kong on other charges. 

Senior government officials say they need to pass the bill by July, arguing Chan could be released as early as October. This is even though Taipei has said it would not request his extradition.

Are there sufficient safeguards?

Under the proposed law, an extradition request would be reviewed by the courts but it is Hong Kong’s chief executive, as the territory’s leader is called, who would have the final decision.

The Hong Kong authorities stressed that human rights and procedural safeguards would be kept in place, including protection against the death penalty, a restriction on double jeopardy and no extradition of suspects for political offences. The government said a right to appeal and judicial review “will be maintained”.

John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, said last month that the extradition would only apply to crimes punishable by seven years or more in jail rather than the three years originally proposed, and that only the central authority of a jurisdiction, not local authorities, could make rendition requests.

But opposition parties argue that the chief executive would feel compelled to support an extradition request from China because he or she is selected by a Beijing-dominated election committee. They also point to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, under which the chief executive is deemed “accountable” to Beijing.

The Hong Kong Bar Association argues that the courts would have only a “limited role in reviewing and rejecting the extradition process” and has raised concerns that the bill allows insufficient procedures to protect human rights.

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Why has it sparked outrage?

Business leaders, legal professionalsmedia organisations and human rights groups fear the law could be abused, allowing Beijing to seize fugitives for political or commercial reasons.

Activist organisations including Amnesty International have expressed concerns about China’s legal system, pointing to arbitrary detention, torture and serious violations of rights to a fair trial in the country.

They also distrust Hong Kong’s ability to act independently from Beijing following the recent and unprecedented decision to ban the pro-independence Hong Kong National party and the de facto expulsion last year of then Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet.

This occurred after the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, of which he was acting president at the time, hosted a speech by the leader of the Hong Kong National party before it was banned.

Who else is worried?

The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which makes policy recommendations to the US government on its economic relationship with China, warned that the new law could “create significant risks for US national security and economic interests in the territory”. It said the law would allow Beijing to pressure Hong Kong to extradite US citizens living or passing through the territory under “false pretences”.

The EU, UK and Canada have also expressed serious concerns over the proposed amendment while the Hong Kong International Chamber of Commerce said the changes could cause businesses to reconsider selecting the city as their regional headquarters.

What does China say and what next?

Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong has said there is a “legal and urgent need” for an extradition agreement. It said that more than 260 suspects had been transferred from China to Hong Kong since the handover in 1997 but none had been sent in the other direction.

Song Ruan, deputy commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, told reporters that “the amendment proposal is an internal affair of Hong Kong and a domestic affair of China. We firmly oppose any external interference in whatever form or under whatever pretext”.

The Hong Kong government has announced it would bypass the usual bill committee stage, at which legislators are supposed to scrutinise the proposals clause by clause, and take the unusual step of putting the vote directly to the whole of Legco. The bill is was set to go before Legco for debate again on Wednesday, but that has now been pushed back in response to the demonstrations. The council is due to hold a final vote on the bill on June 20. The government has said that it wants the council, which is mainly controlled by pro-Beijing lawmakers, to pass the bill by July. 

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