On Feb. 12, the Hong Kong government proposed changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance that would empower the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to extradite fugitive criminals or criminal suspects to China and Taiwan. However, many figures from business and other circles in Hong Kong have expressed reservations about the bill, and on April 28, 130,000 Hong Kongers took to the streets in protest, calling on the government to withdraw the proposed amendment.
Why are people so worried about a proposal that is meant to bring lawbreakers to justice?
To put it in a nutshell, the storm of protest that has greeted the amendment is a vote of no confidence by Hong Kongers in China’s legal system.
Whenever the Hong Kong government explains why the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance needs to be amended, it seeks to justify it in terms of plugging legal loopholes and demonstrating that the rule of law prevails.
It also says that the amendment is needed to win justice for the victim of a murder that took place in Taiwan in February last year, as the existing ordinance does not provide for the suspected killer, who is in Hong Kong, to be extradited to Taiwan.
Few would disagree with the need to seek justice for the murder victim, but a bigger concern is that the Hong Kong government is paving the way for political persecution.
Taiwanese authorities have stated several times that the murder case could be handled by means of a one-off agreement, but the Hong Kong government has been unwilling to cooperate with this idea. Besides, if the purpose was really to seek justice for the victim, the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance could simply be extended to include Taiwan, but not China.
Hong Kong has always had one of the world’s freest business environments, but since the government revealed its intention to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, various countries’ chambers of commerce in Hong Kong have published statements saying that the amendment would have a negative impact on the territory’s business environment and dampen foreign investors’ confidence.
The Hong Kong government has so far failed to respond to the doubts raised by the various chambers of commerce, including the question of how to ensure that the Chinese government could not pressure the Hong Kong government into extraditing businesspeople for trial on the grounds of economic crimes. China’s trial procedures have always lacked transparency and there is a big question mark as to whether the Hong Kong government would be able to prevent abuses.
China has a widespread culture of “gift giving” and Hong Kong businesspeople are often forced to “do as the Romans do,” but this can put them on the wrong side of the law in China. Even those who only provide professional services can run legal risks for things they do on behalf of their clients.
If the Hong Kong government fails to dispel the aforementioned worries, public opposition to amending the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance will surely continue to grow.
More importantly, if the amendments are enacted, Hong Kong’s business freedoms would be in jeopardy. If the few remaining business freedoms are brought to the verge of extinction, what difference will remain between Hong Kong and ordinary Chinese cities? How far away will it be from “one country, two systems” becoming “one country, one system”?
Matthew Wan is a board member of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprise International Alliance Association.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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