Fear haunts Hong Kong over extradition bill that allows critics to be sent to China

It’s easier to spot China’s red flag with five yellow stars these days in Hong Kong than it is to spot the territory’s own. 

From the t-shirt of a tai chi master on a misty morning practice to a cushion in the offices of a vocal pro-democracy lawmaker across town, the flag’s prominence is a reminder of Beijing’s growing influence over the former British colony – although it’s not always as powerful a symbol as it seems. 

"I sit on it!" laughed Claudia Mo, the lawmaker in question. 

But China’s reach in Hong Kong has prompted a much more serious row over a new extradition bill proposed last month that would allow the extradition of suspects, including foreign nationals, to the mainland for the first time. 

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed concern on Thursday about the impact the proposal would have on British citizens in Hong Kong and the territory’s reputation as an international hub in a joint statement with his Canadian counterpart, Chrystia Freeland.

"We are concerned about the potential effect of these proposals on the large number of UK and Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation," the statement read. 

Britain and Canada said it was vital that the extradition arrangements in Hong Kong were in line with the "one country, two systems" formula agreed when the colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. 

Their unease is allied with those of other foreign envoys as well as lawmakers, human rights defenders and business groups, who have raised fears it would erode rule of law in Hong Kong and leave individuals vulnerable to unfair trials. China’s ruling Communist Party controls the courts, and authorities regularly extract forced confessions and slap trumped-up charges against critics.

“In a nutshell, nobody in the world has any trust or confidence in China’s legal or judicial systems; they just don’t have fair trials,” Ms Mo told the Telegraph. “The interpretation of the law is all up to them – they can do anything; they can package any crime to get you back.”

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, who would have final say on transferring suspects, has defended the proposal as closing a loophole so fugitives can be brought to justice, although on Thursday, the proposals were watered down in light of the ongoing uproar. 

Hong Kong’s Security Secretary John Lee said the government had decided that only suspects facing more serious crimes, or those normally dealt with by Hong Kong’s High Court, with a minimum punishment of at least seven years, rather than the previous three years, could now be extradited, and added that extradition requests from China could only come from its highest judicial organ, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, rather than any provincial authorities. 

However, opposition democrats said the tweaks weren’t enough and reiterated demands that the entire bill be scrapped.  

There’s little popular support for the extradition bill – thousands took to the streets last month snarling traffic; another demonstration is planned for early June. And opposing petitions circulated this week have already gathered thousands of names.

Even three Hong Kong judges, who generally don’t comment on political or legislative issues, condemned the bill this week as the biggest challenge facing the territory’s legal system. The bill needs a simple majority to pass, and it’s expected to be rushed through in July by Hong Kong’s legislative council, where the pro-Beijing camp easily outnumbers opponents. 

The British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government declined to comment directly.

But fears of what the bill may mean are already having an impact. 

Bookseller Lam Wing-kee has already left Hong Kong over worries that he’d be one of the first plucked back to China. “I didn’t want to leave, but there was no choice; I had to flee,” he told the Telegraph.

Mr Lam, 63, was one of five booksellers linked to a shop that sold banned books, including tabloid gossip on elite officials, that were kidnapped in 2015 and later revealed to be detained in China. Some remain missing, and others have been imprisoned.

After eight months of detention – many in solitary confinement where he was interrogated without being informed of charges – he says Chinese authorities let him go if he promised to bring back a hard drive full of his customer’s names, which he never did. Now, he’s a wanted fugitive by Beijing.

There’s a wry sense in Hong Kong that passing the law will make nabbing people like Mr Lam “more convenient, easier to do; they don’t have to send a team of kidnappers – they’ll have use of the Hong Kong police,” said Margaret Ng, a Hong Kong barrister and former lawmaker. “Once it’s passed as law, they can very happily be very relaxed about it, so this gives it legitimacy.”

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The extradition bill is the latest in a string of developments that worry many in Hong Kong, although the city’s freedoms and autonomy are supposed to be guaranteed under the 50-year agreement inked when the territory was ceded by the British back to Beijing.

Since 2017, Beijing has pressured city authorities to squash dissent by expelling elected officials, jailing activists, and outlawing political parties. Events with dissident artists and writers have been axed, and even outspoken professors have lost their university contracts without explanation.

It’s a far cry from the Hong Kong that Mr Lam returned to a few years ago when he fled Chinese authorities – one that he still felt safe in at the time.

“Now, there’s no chance I can return. What a joke!”

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