By Mark A. Upaa
It’s been a long, and fraught road for Hong Kong’s contentious extradition legislation. What started with a gruesome murder during a local couple’s Valentine’s Day holiday in Taiwan has become the latest flash point in the values clash between Beijing and the West. At the very heart of contention, the legislation would give the Hong Kong State, power to enter one-time agreements with other countries to enable swift transfer of suspects in certain categories of crime.
Such as the Hong Kong man who escaped prosecution in Taiwan after murdering his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day 2018, by simply returning home. But the inclusion of China, on the list of possible partners in this venture and whose justice system remains separate from Hong Kong’s per a 1984 handover agreement with the U.K., prompted hundreds of thousands of opponents to protest and attempt to stop the bill’s passage.
The events unfolding have built up over several months and are only just coming to a crescendo. The catalyst, a local teenager is killed while vacationing with her boyfriend in Taiwan. She’s beaten, strangled, stuffed in a suitcase and ultimately discarded near a train station. The boyfriend, a Hong Kong resident, admits to the murder after fleeing back home. But Hong Kong authorities can’t extradite him back to Taiwan to stand trial, and instead prosecute him for the lesser charge of money laundering.
Barely a year after the horrible tragedy, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s proposed legislative changes that would ease the transfer of criminal suspects between select neighboring countries including mainland China. The move triggered concern among activists, lawyers and the business leaders, with many warning that exposing Hong Kong residents to China’s legal system could risk the city’s autonomy and status as a financial hub.
A month later, in March, a delegation of U.S. lawmakers, including the co-chairmen of the U.S.-China Working Group, Representatives Darin LaHood, an Illinois Republican, and Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat visited and met with pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong. The U.S. Consul General Kurt Tong says the bill could have “some impact” on Hong Kong’s special trading status. As an apparent ‘olive branch’, Hong Kong authorities scale back some parts of the proposal, removing nine categories of financial crimes including bankruptcy, securities and futures, and intellectual property from the list of crimes. But the concessions do little to silence outcry: the law still covers offenses including murder, polygamy and robbery. On April 3rd, the Hong Kong government introduced its proposed bill to the Legislative Council, with the goal of passing the proposal before the session ends in July.
The proposal has received support from mainland China through, Zhang Xiaoming, the director of the Chinese office responsible for Hong Kong, saying it will prevent the city from becoming a haven for fugitives. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also made a statement about the necessity of having such legislation in place. This support comes after the U.K., which handed the territory back to China in 1997, formally expressed its concerns to Hong Kong’s government. Others including the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong have aired reservations.
Hong Kong C.E.O Lam has forged ahead even after some of the city’s largest mass protests since the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement. For the last 2 months there have been sporadic demonstrations around the Legislative Council building, with many of the demonstrators calling for Lam’s resignation. On April 29, a Hong Kong court convicted the Valentine’s Day murder suspect of money laundering and sentenced him to 29 months in prison, he is eligible for early release in October fueling government calls to pass the extradition bill quickly.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has spoken out against the bill, saying its passage would threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law. He has also gone as far as to meet with pro-democracy advocates from Hong Kong to discuss on the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy and Beijing’s efforts to extend its reach.
On Wednesday, 12th of June, hundreds of thousands of people marched through central Hong Kong in opposition to the bill, many chanting for Lam to step down. Organizers say more than 1 million people out of a population of 7.5 million turned out at the demonstration’s peak, while police estimated a more modest 240,000.
The Legislative Council has scheduled debates, amid calls for further protests and unprecedented strikes. Lam, with a fresh statement of support from Beijing, says the bill provides enough human rights protections and warns that delaying its passage would do more harm than good. Opponents of the bill have urged a general strike on June 17, days before the legislature plans to conclude its debate on the matter.