Hong Kong saw its largest protests in 30 years on Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of people marching against what they said was Beijing’s growing legal over-reach © Bloomberg

The Trump administration has expressed “grave concern” over a controversial Hong Kong extradition bill that would allow individuals to be sent to China to stand trial, saying the proposal puts the territory’s special status at risk.

The state department issued a statement following the largest protests in Hong Kong in 30 years on Sunday, when hundreds of thousands of people marched against what they said was Beijing’s growing legal over-reach in the semi-autonomous territory. 

Morgan Ortagus, state department spokesperson, said the US was worried that the “lack of procedural protections” in the bill could “negatively impact the territory’s longstanding protections of human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic values”.

The US move came as a New Zealand court rejected an extradition request from China on the grounds that the accused might not get a fair trial and could be subject to torture. 

Hong Kong was guaranteed its civil liberties would be protected for 50 years after its handover from the UK to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework. The territory does not have an extradition agreement with mainland China.

The US grants Hong Kong special status under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, which allows the semi-autonomous territory to be treated as a non-sovereign entity distinct from China for trade and economic matters under US law. 

Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the US statement was “very significant”. He said the odds of the US Congress revisiting the Hong Kong Policy Act had risen after the protests, amid Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s “intransigence in the face of such an outpouring of popular opinion”.

Analysts in Washington were sceptical that the Trump administration would push the issue hard, including at the G20 in Osaka later this month, which Mr Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping are expected to attend. Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, said the US would traditionally use a meeting with a Chinese leader to raise concerns about something like the extradition law, but that Mr Trump had taken a less tough approach.

“President Trump has been unwavering in his indifference to developments in greater China concerning human rights, democracy and rule of law. I don’t expect Trump’s brand to change as a result of protests in Hong Kong,” said Mr Hass, who added that the state department would “continue to release timely and on-target messages”

Hong Kong has received less and less attention in Washington in recent years, and particularly in the five years since the Umbrella Revolution in late 2014. Pete Buttigieg, one of the 23 Democrats running for president, tweeted that it was “inspiring” to see so many Hong Kong residents marching peacefully at the weekend.

“We must continue America’s commitment to Hong Kong’s openness, democratic values, and judicial independence,” he tweeted.

Marco Rubio, the Republican senator and China hawk, also tweeted that people should be “inspired by & support the people of #HongKong as they peacefully protest”.

Sophie Richardson, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, said lawmakers were “increasingly speaking out about the Chinese government’s human rights violations” such as the mass arbitrary detention of Uighurs, and observing the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But she said Hong Kong posed a particular problem.

“Several have spoken in opposition to the proposed extradition law in Hong Kong and suggested invoking the Hong Kong Policy Act, but even in doing so it remains difficult to ensure that the consequences are imposed on the problematic actors in Hong Kong — and Beijing.”

Ms Lam vowed to push ahead with a second reading of the bill on Wednesday, claiming the law was needed to plug a legal loophole and was misunderstood by critics. 

The city is preparing up for further protests along with strikes, boycotts of schools and universities on Wednesday when formal debate of the proposed extradition bill starts in Hong Kong’s parliament. Flyers circulating online on Tuesday encouraging people to attend anti-extradition picnics and participate in 72-hour marathon prayers for the safety of the city.

Analysts warned Hong Kong risked being dragged into rising tensions associated with the US-China trade war and an export ban by Washington on Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment group.

Ho-fung Hung, a professor of Chinese political economy at Johns Hopkins University, said the state department statement and public statements from some US lawmakers linking the extradition bill to Hong Kong’s special status amounted to a red line.

“Hong Kong has become a very important part of the larger US-China intensifying rivalry,” he said.

Mr Lam said many shell companies owned by mainland Chinese have been registered in Hong Kong since 1997 and “operated by China with the sole purpose of taking advantage of Hong Kong’s special status to, for example, import technologically sensitive material and knowhow from the US”. 

While the US does not allow the export of dual-use or technologically sensitive material to China, Beijing can get round this by setting up shell companies in Hong Kong, he said. 

“If Trump is serious about imposing sanctions on companies like Huawei and so forth, the current administration may find it useful to close the loophole and to abrogate this special status from Hong Kong,” said Mr Lam.

Beijing has also been dealt a blow in its efforts to lobby New Zealand and Australia to agree formal extradition deals so it can prosecute corrupt Communist party officials that it alleges have fled to the two countries. 

New Zealand’s Court of Appeal on Tuesday quashed a government decision to extradite a Kyung Yup Kim, a Korean man who is accused of killing a 20-year-old woman in Shanghai in 2009. Chinese police say they have forensic and circumstantial evidence linking him to the killing and applied for extradition in 2011.

Wellington approved the extradition request after receiving diplomatic assurances from Beijing regarding the accused’s right to a fair trial and the risk of torture. But the Court of Appeal ruling said the evidence was that China’s criminal justice system prioritised political stability and crime control over procedural rights, and was subject to political influence. 

Tony Ellis, the lawyer who represented Mr Kim, said the judgment would have wider ramifications. “It is a judgment that has profound human rights importance which will resonate through out the Common Law world; it is not just important in New Zealand,” he said.

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