HONG KONG - Each week for the last five or six years, a man named Alan crosses into mainland China to work on sales for a packaging factory. His job, and the location, worry him now that Hong Kong is considering a law change that would compel Hong Kong to turn over criminal suspects to mainland China.
“Every single business that’s working in China has broken some sort of laws. Every single one of them,” said Alan. He asked that his surname be withheld out of concern for his and his family’s safety. “It’s impossible not to break a law in China when running a business because the laws are so onerous."
“I know I’m not wanted, but who knows?” he said. “The whole thing about living in Hong Kong is, there is a certain amount of protection from China.”
That protection could soon vanish.
A proposed amendment, backed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, would free Beijing to demand that Hong Kong surrender criminal suspects to China to face trial there.
Similar concerns were shared in Washington Wednesday. Four democracy activists from Hong Kong urged Congress to pressure the Hong Kong government to shelve proposed changes to the law that would allow Beijing to demand that criminal suspects be extradited to face trial there.
In Washington, former Hong Kong lawmakers Martin Lee and Nathan Law reminded the bi-partisan panel, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, that China’s opaque and political legal system operates without the transparency or standards used in the West. China could get someone on the mainland to swear an affidavit that a suspect had committed an offense and then demand that Hong Kong send the suspect to face prosecution, Lee said.
"This goes to the heart of what Hong Kong people truly fear: that those of us who dare speak out to defend human rights and democracy… will risk trumped up arrest, torture and unfair trial in mainland China,” Law said, a lawmaker until 2017 when he was ejected by a court using a controversial legal opinion issued by China’s legislature.
"Our generation is especially concerned about being sent to a place that does not respect human rights," he said.
A session Saturday in Hong Kong's legislative assembly about a controversial extradition law ended in a brawl between lawmakers, with one member of the assembly hospitalized.
Neither the pro-democracy lawmakers nor the pro-Beijing politicians are budging from their disapproval or support of the proposed law that would allow Hong Kong to extradite people to other jurisdictions where it lacks a permanent extradition agreement, including China and Taiwan, on a case by case basis. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that such changes would close legal "loopholes."
It follows a high profile murder
The testimony came days after Hong Kong’s legislature erupted in a brawl when members of the body’s two opposing camps physically battled for control of the bill currently in a legislative committee.
The bill would allow Hong Kong to send criminal suspects to other jurisdictions where the territory does not currently have extradition pacts. That includes Taiwan and China.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, says the change is needed fast, before a Hong Kong man suspected of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan last year is freed. Lawmakers and scholars proposed alternative language, including a proposal for extradition to Taiwan only. The government said Hong Kong needs a broad policy to handle fugitives or the city will become a haven for them.
The four guests in Washington made clear that the extradition bill doesn’t only threaten permanent residents who are protected by a Common Law legal system in Hong Kong. Also vulnerable are foreign workers and the 85,000 Americans who live in the former British colony that was surrendered to China in 1997. The commission’s witnesses said the American officials should press Hong Kong’s human rights concerns as the United States continues to negotiate with China about the ongoing battle over tariffs.
Lee said if the bill is passed, Hong Kong’s guaranteed rights to free speech and assembly, and a Common Law court, will be finished. “There’s this under-appreciation of what happens in mainland China,” Lee said. “There’s no rule of law. They want to get you, they get you. Period. Your right of appeal is null.”
The group made their case on Capitol Hill Wednesday as the bill continues to deeply divide Hong Kong people. Tens of thousands of residents demanded that the bill be shelved and that their chief executive resign as they marched through Hong Kong streets on April 28. It was the largest protest in the Chinese territory since tens of thousands staged a sit-in for free elections in 2014.
The committee witnesses mentioned the increasing difficulties faced by Beijing government opponents in Hong Kong. Earlier that day, six pro-democracy activists were convicted of joining an unlawful protest in Hong Kong in 2016 to oppose an imminent constitutional interpretation from Beijing.
That rare ruling was triggered by a legal challenge to the oath-taking by eight new lawmakers. Soon after, Beijing required oaths to be delivered “sincerely and solemnly,” as written, with no option to retake them. Hong Kong courts soon used the interpretation retroactively to bar two elected lawmakers from restating their pledges and expelled four legislators who had been sworn in.
Lee urged U.S. officials to remind corporations that their freedoms and businesses are threatened with the law. Individuals could face prosecutions and businesses would lose guarantees of a transparent legal system.
“They would rather we fight the fight for them,” Lee said. “They don't want to stick their necks out. I reckon the business people must be persuaded to come around. So they understand that human rights are preserved for everybody.”