Hong Kong just experienced one of its largest demonstrations since the city’s 2014 Occupy Central protests, with more than 130,000 people braving Sunday’s scorching sun to rail against a legal amendment that will allow the rendition of wanted persons to mainland China.

The extradition bill, soon to be tabled at Hong Kong’s legislature, will streamline the surrender of wanted fugitives to jurisdictions with which the city does not have a bilateral rendition deal. Included in such jurisdictions, and the target of Sunday’s protests, is mainland China. The legal changes, critics say, will create a loophole in the de jure segregation between the city and the rest of China, an arrangement carefully preserved when the former British colony was handed back to Beijing in 1997.

Mass protest rally

Members of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic bloc say the city’s common law system that it inherited from British rule is incompatible with China’s socialist laws and that Hong Kong people are filled with dread by China’s unpredictable political environment where an independent judiciary cannot exist. They say the possibility of Beijing trumping up criminal or economic crimes in order to ease the surrender of dissidents or journalists should be a major cause for concern, even though the Hong Kong government has vowed that political offenders will be protected.

Foreign chambers of commerce as well as diplomats from Britain, the US, Canada and the EU have also voiced their concern, as they argue that the new bill could affect business operations and the rights and freedoms of their citizens residing in the city. For instance, US Consul General Kurt Tong said he was worried about the bill and its impact on the 85,000 US citizens living in Hong Kong.

Tens of thousands marched in Hong Kong on Sunday to protest a new extradition law that would allow the transfer of fugitives to China. Photo: Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers and activists demand the extradition bill be scrapped. Photo: VOA

Protesters take little assurance from Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Security Secretary John Lee noting that there would be a provision to make a case not applicable if it could relate to political opinion, religion, nationality or ethnicity, no matter how a foreign jurisdiction might categorize an offence. Also, nine categories of “white collar” crimes concerning bankruptcy, securities and futures and intellectual property have been excluded from the amendment in a bid to placate the business sector.

In response to Sunday’s mass protest, a Hong Kong government spokesperson said all existing human rights and procedural safeguards provided for in the current legislation – such as double criminality principle, protection against death penalty, restriction against re-surrender, application for habeas corpus and right to appeal and judicial review – would be maintained. He added that the the executive authority and the court would perform their respective gate-keeping roles in handling all surrender requests.

Murder case 

The government insisted that the amendment to allow easier extraditions aimed to deal with cases such as that of the Hong Kong man who murdered his girlfriend while on vacation in Taiwan. Officials stressed the move was necessary to plug loopholes to avoid the city becoming a “haven for fugitives and murderers” as the suspect could not be extradited back to Taiwan to face trial in the absence of an existing extradition agreement between the two jurisdictions.

The suspect, surnamed Chan, is currently in custody in Hong Kong after being convicted of money laundering. However, he will walk free in seven months if the extradition amendment fails to pass the legislature by October.

“The Taiwan murder case has clearly shown that serious crimes can happen in any place and at any time. It is just a question who the unfortunate victim may be. Hence, we have to amend the current mechanisms as quickly as possible to have a legal basis to deal with the requests on juridical assistance in criminal matters,” read a government statement.

Fleeing bookseller 

Causeway Bay Books manager Lam Wing-kee talks about his abduction and ordeal at a press conference in June 2016. Photo: AP
Causeway Bay Books manager Lam Wing-kee talks about his abduction and ordeal at a press conference after he fled back to Hong Kong in June 2016. Photo: AP

Meanwhile, at least one Hong Kong man has decided to pull up roots and leave the city for good to avoid being shipped to the mainland.

A businessman selling gossip-filled books about Chinese leaders, who in 2015 was detained and interrogated by Chinese agents for seven months for mailing banned publications, emigrated to Taiwan last week.

Bookseller Lam Wing-kee, who returned to Hong Kong after his ordeal and remains wanted by mainland Chinese authorities for violating the conditions of his bail, said he no longer felt safe in the city. Lam was among several associates of a bookstore based in the city’s Causeway Bay area who were detained by Chinese agents for selling banned titles to mainland buyers.

Some of Lam’s colleagues were widely believed to have been abducted in Hong Kong and whisked across the border by Chinese agents, sparking an angry backlash as, in theory at least, mainland law enforcers have no legal power to do so in Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” framework.

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HK scales back controversial extradition bill