NEW YORK—The planned changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws are the latest example of China’s erosion of the city’s autonomy since coming under Beijing’s rule more than two decades ago, Hong Kong rights activists said at a panel discussion in New York City on May 9.
The city’s unicameral Legislative Council (LegCo) is currently considering amendments to its extradition laws that would allow for the transfer of criminal suspects to jurisdictions, including mainland China, that do not currently have extradition arrangements with the city.
Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law, who rose to prominence as a student leader during Hong Kong’s mass democracy protests—known as the Umbrella Movement—in 2014, said the bill has drawn opposition from all spheres of society, from ordinary citizens to the business community, as demonstrated by a recent protest that drew 130,000 people.
“These amendments will ruin the business environment of Hong Kong, and our core civil rights and liberties,” Law said at an event hosted by the Asia Society to discuss China’s relationship with the city. He and other activists were visiting the United States as part of a campaign to raise awareness about the bill and its potential consequences.
“We clearly know that [the bill] is targeting the political dissidents in Hong Kong, and targeting all those [Chinese] businessmen … [who are] getting money out of China.” In 2018, Law was among a group of activists sentenced to jail for “unlawful assembly,” for their involvement in the Umbrella Movement protests. Their jail sentences were overturned on appeal.
Those opposed to the bill argue that given the Chinese regime’s disregard for the rule of law, the amendments could allow Beijing to charge and extradite its critics with impunity.
Despite broad opposition, the bill is expected to pass the LegCo in July, given its pro-Beijing majority.
Under the proposed arrangements, Hong Kong’s chief executive makes the final decision on whether to extradite a person, whereas currently, the LegCo signs off on whether to grant extradition.
Law said this process removes the monitoring role played by LegCo, while giving final decision-making power to Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader. The city’s chief executive is elected by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing electors.
“We know the Hong Kong government has always been a puppet regime,” he said. “Can you imagine [that] the leader of the Hong Kong government will reject a political request from [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping because of any imaginable reason? I don’t think so.”
Democracy activist Martin Lee, a former LegCo member and president of the city’s bar association, also challenged the Hong Kong government’s contention that the courts can act as a safeguard in the process.
All that is needed for an extradition request from the Chinese regime to succeed, Lee said, is for it to provide basic evidence against a suspect, such as a witness statement. The courts in Hong Kong, however, have no way of determining the credibility of such evidence, and are required to approve the extradition request upon this basic condition being fulfilled, he said.
“So the judge cannot protect people. There is no doubt about that,” Lee said in an interview with The Epoch Times after the event.
‘It Affects Everyone’
Foreigners are also affected by the bill, Lee said, who would be at risk of being extradited to mainland China under trumped-up charges with fabricated evidence.
On May 7, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a report voicing similar concern that the bill could allow “Beijing to pressure the Hong Kong government to extradite U.S. citizens under false pretenses.”
This would heighten the risk for the 85,000 U.S. citizens in Hong Kong, as well as the U.S. naval personnel who disembark at the city during routine port calls, the report stated.
Lee said he believed it would not be difficult for the Chinese regime to seek the extradition of foreign nationals, such as those critical of the regime, for political purposes. To do this, Beijing need only assert that the person committed a crime, such as selling drugs, while in China, and produce a witness statement to support this allegation.
“The point is, we don’t trust the [Chinese] Communist Party,” he said.
Decline of Rule of Law
The panelists also lamented the loss of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the erosion of rule of law in recent years.
Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997. The UK–China handover agreement had included an express guarantee that the city would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not allowed in mainland China—a policy known as “one country, two systems.”
This promise, however, has gone unfulfilled, Law said.
Law’s own experiences serve as examples of the regime’s growing influence in Hong Kong’s affairs, panelists said.
In 2017, Law was disqualified from his elected seat in the LegCo, over the manner in which he took his oath to public office, a ruling made possible after the Chinese regime intervened in issuing a new interpretation of the city’s constitution. Several other pro-democracy lawmakers were also disqualified under similar circumstances.
Law said that political prosecutions against democracy activists and scholars have increased since the end of the Umbrella Movement protests.
In April, four leaders from the 2014 protests were also jailed for their role in the demonstrations.
Lee called on the international community to call on the Chinese regime to honor its agreement to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“I know it’s difficult,” he said, “but if we give up because it’s difficult, the world will never change.”