Why planned changes to Hong Kong’s extradition laws are fuelling protests

Protesters shield themselves with umbrellas against pepper spray used by the police during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong. Violent clashes broke out as police tried to stop protesters storming the city’s parliament. Picture: Getty Images

Greg Torode explores the controversial plan to allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China which has a deeply flawed justice system

HONG Kong police again fired rubber bullets and tear gas during clashes with demonstrators as protests against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial descended into violent chaos spread.

Civil Human Rights Front, which organised a protest on Sunday that it estimated saw more than 1m people take to the streets in protest against the extradition bill, accused police of using unnecessary violence.

The protesters, most of them young people dressed in black, had erected barricades as they prepared to hunker down for an extended occupation of the area, in scenes reminiscent of pro-democracy “Occupy” protests that gridlocked the former British colony in 2014.

Hong Kong’s government has indefinitely delayed the second round of debate on an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial for the first time.

Hong Kong residents, as well as foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the global financial hub, would all be at risk if they are wanted on the mainland.

Pro-establishment political forces are dominant in the Legislative Council and the bill is expected to be passed by the end of the month.

What does the extradition bill involve?

A protester has water poured on his face after police fired tear gas during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong. Picture: Getty Images
A protester has water poured on his face after police fired tear gas during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong. Picture: Getty Images

The Hong Kong government first launched the proposals in February, putting forward sweeping changes that would simplify case-by-case extraditions of criminal suspects to countries beyond the 20 with which Hong Kong has existing extradition treaties.

It explicitly allows extraditions from Hong Kong to greater China — including the mainland, Taiwan and Macau — for the first time, closing what Hong Kong government officials have repeatedly described as a “loophole” that they claim has allowed the city to become a haven for criminals from the mainland.

Hong Kong’s leader would start and finally approve an extradition following a request from a foreign jurisdiction but only after court hearings, including any possible appeals. However, the bill removes Legislative Council oversight of extradition arrangements.

Why is the Hong Kong government pushing it now?

A policeman shouts at protesters during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong. Picture: Getty Images
A policeman shouts at protesters during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong. Picture: Getty Images

Officials initially seized on the murder last year of a young Hong Kong woman holidaying in Taiwan to justify swift changes. Police say her boyfriend confessed on his return to Hong Kong and he is now in jail on lesser money-laundering charges.

Taiwan authorities have strongly opposed the bill, which they say could leave Taiwanese citizens exposed in Hong Kong and have vowed to refuse taking back the murder suspect if the bill is passed.

A long-forgotten issue, the need for an eventual extradition deal with the mainland was acknowledged by government officials and experts ahead of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” model.

The city maintains a separate and independent legal system as part of the broader freedoms the formula guarantees. Little progress has been made in talks since then with justice and security officials on the mainland, where the Communist Party controls the courts.

How strong is opposition to the bill?

Protesters face off with police during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters. Picture: Getty Images
Protesters face off with police during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters. Picture: Getty Images

Concern about the amendments has spiralled in recent weeks, taking in pro-business and pro-Beijing elements usually loath to publicly contradict the Hong Kong or Chinese governments.

Senior Hong Kong judges have privately expressed alarm, and mainland commercial lawyers based in Hong Kong have echoed their fears, saying the mainland system cannot be trusted to meet even basic standards of judicial fairness. Hong Kong lawyers’ groups issued detailed submissions to the government, hoping to force a postponement.

Authorities have repeatedly stressed judges will serve as “gatekeepers” or guardians for extradition requests. But some judges say privately China’s increasingly close relationship with Hong Kong and the limited scope of extradition hearings leaves them exposed to political pressure from Beijing.

Schools, lawyers and church groups have joined human rights groups to protest against the measures.

A protester joins others using umbrellas as a display of people power.
A protester joins others using umbrellas as a display of people power.

Following a brawl in the legislature over the bill, the government moved to fast-track the bill by scrapping established legislative procedures.

Foreign political and diplomatic pressure over human rights concerns is rising, too. As well as recent statements from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his British and German counterparts, some 11 EU envoys met Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to protest formally. “It’s a proposal, or a set of proposals, which strike a terrible blow ... against the rule of law, against Hong Kong’s stability and security, against Hong Kong’s position as a great international trading hub,” Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, said.

Some opposition politicians say the issue now represents a turning point for the city’s free status.

Will the government drop the bill?

Protestors gather near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. Picture: AP
Protestors gather near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. Picture: AP

Lam and her key officials have been strident in defending the bill both publicly and privately, stressing the need for action in the Taiwan murder and the need to plug a loophole.

They also insist broad safeguards mean anyone at risk of political or religious persecution or who faces torture will not be extradited. Likewise, no one who faces the death penalty will be extradited. China denies accusations of human rights abuses.

While they have raised the threshold to serious crimes only, and excluded nine specific economic offences, there is no hint yet they will actually scrap the plan. They have also not announced more extensive consultations given the potentially grave repercussions.

Chinese officials have also now publicly supported the Hong Kong government in the face of diplomatic pressure, saying it has become a sovereign issue.

Some opposition politicians believe the Hong Kong government position is finally wavering, however, and Beijing may allow it to climb down if enough people hit the streets.

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