The End of Hong Kong Is Almost Here

Allowing extradition to China would be another nail in the coffin.

A banner against a proposed extradition law is seen in a meeting room in Hong Kong, China. 14 May 2019.
A banner against a proposed extradition law is seen in a meeting room in Hong Kong, China. 14 May 2019. Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When about 130,000 Hong Kongers marched through the streets on April 28, it was the largest protest in the city-state since the Umbrella Movement in 2014. But rather than calling for democratic elections, the marchers were out for a more pressing cause—opposing a proposed extradition bill by the Hong Kong government that would enable them to send Hong Kongers to face dubious justice at the hands of mainland Chinese authorities.

The Hong Kong authorities were taken aback by the size of the protest, given that a similar march a month earlier attracted only 12,000 demonstrators. One factor was the sentencing of nine leaders of the Occupy Central movement (the precursor of the Umbrella Movement) on April 23, with four given jail sentences. Some politicians who support the government urged it to ignore public opinion and pass the bill quickly, wary about the protests growing even larger. Extraordinary scenes even took place in the legislature as a massive fight between rival lawmakers broke out on May 11 over the bill.

Besides the huge protest on April 28, the bill is coming under fire from politicians, the legal sector, and, most tellingly, the local and foreign business sectors.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the massive 2003 protest by over 500,000 Hong Kongers against a proposed national security law, which would have criminalized treason, secession, and sedition against the Chinese central government. The protests succeeded in making the government scrap the proposal. But the atmosphere in Hong Kong has changed considerably since then—and Beijing is wielding a much stronger hand.

If it is passed, this extradition bill will signal the virtual end of Hong Kong not just as a distinct city under One Country, Two Systems but also as an international business hub, because nobody in Hong Kong would be safe from the reach of China’s legal system. Most potently for Hong Kongers, it will mean the erasure of the sense of the city as something different and special—a threat to the values that the regions’ residents have come to hold dear.

This extradition bill would enable wanted individuals in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan. This would cover anybody in Hong Kong, whether residents, foreign workers, or even visitors.

The nominal cause was a gory crime committed in Taiwan. In February 2018, officials say, a Hong Kong man killed his girlfriend (also a Hong Konger) while in Taiwan, disposed of her body, and then flew back to Hong Kong before Taiwanese police could apprehend him. After the suspect was arrested by local police, the authorities found themselves in a legal quandary given that Hong Kong and Taiwan do not have an extradition agreement. Indeed, as part of China, Hong Kong does not even have official ties with Taiwan or recognize it as a country. This February, the Hong Kong authorities came out with a proposal that expanded the scope of extradition to include Macau and mainland China, stunning many Hong Kongers.

Having an extradition arrangement with Taiwan is one thing, but China is a completely different story. Taiwan is a democracy with rule of law, an independent judiciary, and other strong civil liberties. Hong Kong might not be a democracy—although it has elected legislators, their role is limited, and Beijing dominates—but its people deeply value the rule of law established under the British and still modeled on an independent court system unknown on the mainland. In China, the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, there is a 99 percent conviction rate, and arrested people are often subject to arbitrary and vague charges, not to mention held incommunicado for months and forced to give televised confessions. It doesn’t just happen to Chinese nationals, as the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who still remain in custody for “harming national security”; the Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai; and the Taiwanese author Lee Ming-che, detained since 2017, can attest.

China has extradition agreements with over 30 nations, including France and Laos, but those countries retain the option to decline an extradition request if necessary, as Portugal did in 2014. The Hong Kong government claims that extraditions to China would take part on a case-by-case basis, with hearings held.

But would any Hong Kong court really rule against an extradition request from Chinese authorities and would China actually put up with such a denial? Given how pliable the Hong Kong authorities have been in recent years in matters favoring China, not a chance.

By banning a Financial Times journalist, disqualifying legislators, putting Occupy Central leaders on trial, and criminalizing “insulting” the Chinese national anthem, the Hong Kong government has shown it is willing to cut back on Hong Kong’s freedoms to suit Beijing.

The Hong Kong public has already had a taste of Chinese so-called justice. In 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers, including Gui, were kidnapped only to reappear in mainland Chinese custody on vague charges of “illegal activities” as well as an alleged traffic violation. The real reason is that the five sold books about the Chinese leadership that are banned in China but still popular among local and mainland readers. In any case, the secretive seizure of these booksellers (one was taken from Thailand) and their appearance in China on trumped-up charges only confirmed the lack of genuine rule of law and due process in the mainland. No Hong Konger wants to be subject to supposed justice that involves secret detentions, spurious charges, and forced confessions.

While the bill has not come into effect, it has caused one of the booksellers to flee Hong Kong. Lam Wing-kee flew to Taiwan in late April, saying he was fearful of being extradited to China. After Lam was seized and taken to China in 2015, he was later allowed to return to Hong Kong on condition he hand over details about his customers to Chinese authorities. Once in Hong Kong, he refused to do this. If the extradition law passes, mainland authorities could use it to demand Lam be brought back to China. As Lam said about China, “You don’t know what kind of excuses or charges they will use to put you on the wanted list.” That’s a sentiment many Hong Kongers likely share.

This includes Hong Kong’s pro-government business sector, which was spooked enough to speak out against it. Normally, the business sector is supportive of the Hong Kong government as well as Beijing initiatives such as the Greater Bay Area plan, and it often ignores or condemns local political causes.

But even for them, the extradition bill is a step too far. Foreign businesses have also been alarmed, with the American Chamber of Commerce expressing “serious reservations” in a letter to Hong Kong’s Security Secretary John Lee. The Hong Kong government responded by removing nine economic offenses such as bankruptcies from the list of charges (which now stands at 37) that people could be extradited for. However, this has not been enough to placate businesses, and the American Chamber of Commerce is still critical of the proposal.

This is what makes this bill extraordinary. It is not just about politics or the growing mainlandization of Hong Kong, but about Hong Kongers’ trust in the law and the city’s status as an international business hub—all of which depend on its free and fair courts.

Doing business under Hong Kong law and having recourse to justice in its courts is a key it still remains attractive despite the growth of Shenzhen and other Chinese hubs. If the management and personnel of these firms are suddenly vulnerable to the reach of the Chinese state, then there is little difference between Hong Kong and any other mainland city.

There are numerous examples of foreign businessmen who have imprisoned in China on dubious charges and closed trials. The Australian Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu was jailed for nine years for allegedly stealing commercial secrets before being released last year. Much of his trial was held behind closed doors, and Australian consulate officials were banned from attending. Another Australian-Chinese executive, Matthew Ng, was arrested in 2010 after he refused to sell a stake in his million-dollar company to a local Chinese government. He was charged with bribery and fraud and jailed for four years before being sent back to Australia.

More recently, the Canadian businessman Michael Spavor was suddenly arrested in December 2018 for allegedly trying to steal Chinese state secrets, in what was obviously retaliation by the Chinese for Canada’s arrest of the Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou earlier that month.

Not surprisingly, Hong Kong’s legal sector has also spoken out. In an open letter, all 30 members of the legal sector’s grouping in the Election Committee (which selects Hong Kong’s chief executive) called for the bill to be dropped, warning that it would undermine confidence in Hong Kong’s criminal justice system. The Hong Kong Bar Association also criticized the bill as being unnecessary.

Hong Kong has seen the steady erosion of its political and media liberties in the last few years, while facing the possibility of being absorbed into the mainland through the Greater Bay Area. Yet the city-state has stubbornly clung to its distinct identity, forged through elements like rule of law that benefit both residents and businesses. If the extradition law passes, then Hong Kong will lose a huge chunk of this distinctiveness, and the facade of being different from the mainland will truly crumble.

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.