Sunday’s march on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council brought an estimated million people onto the streets, which if true would make it the largest demonstration in the history of the Special Administrative Region. The reason for the demonstration was the proposed Extradition Treaty, which will be debated on Tuesday 11thJune. Legislators will do well to listen to the voice of the people and the rest of the world has one last chance to put their concerns.
Hong Kong is guaranteed its independent judicial power under the provisions of the Basic Law, which was negotiated between Britain and China and came into force in 1997. That Basic Law also gave Hong Kong citizens freedom of speech and other rights including the right to demonstrate. These freedoms are highly valued by Hong Kong citizens, and they have been forcefully reminded of how precious they are just this month with the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre (also called an “Event” by the more squeamish).
Lawyers tend to be among the most conservative elements of any society and not known for political activism, but 1,800 Hong Kong lawyers marched to the Court of Final Appeal (Hong Kong’s top lawmaking body) in 2014 to protest Beijing’s White Paper on Hong Kong. They saw this as an attempt to rewrite the Basic Law by making lawyers part of the government structure and giving them political missions. Johannes Chan, at that time Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, has published widely on perceptions of the role of the legal system in different parts of Asia, including China and the Hong Kong SAR. He highlightsthe importance of implementation of law and the ability to gain review of decisions, which are particularly relevant to the differences between the Hong Kong and mainland systems.
Hong Kong people know all too well the weaknesses of the legal system in the People’s Republic of China. They understand that they would lose their right to a fair trial if they were arraigned in China. They have seen local businessmen arrested and jailed in China on trumped-up charges arising from business disputes with local partners. They have seen the arm of the mainland reaching into their city leading to cases such as the kidnapping of five booksellers in 2015, or Hong Kong publisher Gui Min-hai, kidnapped in Thailand in 2015 and re-arrested after release in China in 2018. They have also observed the anniversary of June Fourth every year, with this year’s crowd swelling to an estimated 180 thousand. TheSouth China Morning Postnoted that those attending were not only trying to keep alive memories of the democracy movement that had been crushed in Beijing. They also feared that passage of the extradition bill would remove their right to protest and allow the central government to use force against people in the name of stability and security, as they had done formerly in Tiananmen.
Although Hong Kong has extradition agreements with twenty countries, including Australia, its Fugitive Offenders Ordinance as it currently stands excludes such arrangements with China. The proposed amendment would mean that people accused of a crime could be surrendered by Hong Kong to overseas authorities or to mainland China, and their assets in Hong Kong to be frozen. Those targeted might be not only be local citizens but could extend to anyone passing through the SAR. The list of crimes for which people could be extradited include money laundering, corruption and fraud. Some other “white-collar crimes” such as intellectual property infringement were originally listed but have been dropped after lobbying by business interests. From Beijing’s point of view, it seems they are mainly concerned about some 300 “rather important fugitives” who have gone into hiding in Hong Kong. Chinese former Deputy Minister for Public Security Chen Zhimin told the Hong Kong Standardthat authorities “had the name of every single one of them.” Beijing would like to bring them all back to China to face judicial proceedings there. Chen indicated that other Hong Kong people had nothing to fear from the proposed amendments.
There are at present around 100 thousand Australians living in Hong Kong. Many of them work or travel regularly to China from that base. In addition, Hong Kong remains a favourite holiday or transit point for overseas travellers. It is our sixth largest goods export market and seventh largest services export market as well as being one of our top sources of foreign investment. There are many reasons why we should be concerned about this proposed new law.
Canberra has said that it maintains confidence in the operation of the Basic Law, which is usually referred to as “one country, two systems.” According to the South China Morning Post, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said, “We are taking a close interest in the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in Hong Kong. The Australian Consul-General in Hong Kong has raised this issue at senior levels [of government, and the Executive and Legislative Councils]. Given the intense public and international community interest, we hope any amendments are pursued in keeping with due process and consultation, and resolved in a way that maintains confidence in the operation of ‘one country, two systems’.” There has however been no statement from Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
Hong Kong occupies a unique strategic position in the world, particularly now, as China and the United States lock horns and the world seems on the brink of being dragged into a new “Hundred Years War” (to quote Martin Wolf in the Financial Times). Surely it is important that we do what we can to prevent such the development of what might become “one world, two systems.” A good way to start would be to ensure the continuation of Hong Kong’s present special status under the Basic Law.
Jocelyn Chey was Consul General in Hong Kong 1992-95.