A stream of protestors ebbed down Hong Kong’s central thoroughfare Sunday afternoon, crowding vehicles off of the streets and clogging up exits of the city’s subway system. The estimated 1.03 million demonstrators had turned out in the 90-degree heat to march on the headquarters of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the city’s governing body, to protest an extradition bill that the American Chamber of Commerce says is a threat to Hong Kong’s status as a hub for international business.
“The passage of this bill comes at the expense of the business community and we fear business confidence will suffer,” says Tara Joseph, president of AmCham Hong Kong, urging Hong Kong’s ruling Executive Committee not to “brush off” the concerns of the protestors. “Again we ask the government to drop or delay the tabling of this bill and preserve Hong Kong as a leading international business center,” Joseph says.
Why are people protesting?
Sunday’s protest was the largest seen in Hong Kong since the Special Administrative Region was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, according to the event’s organizer. The group, Hong Kong-based Civil Human Rights Front, reported turnout at 1.03 million—equal to roughly 1 in 7 of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million residents—while local police estimate 240,000 demonstrators took to the streets.
The march was the latest in a series of protests against an amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (FOO) presented to Hong Kong lawmakers by the local government in February. The government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, says the bill closes a “loophole” that prevents Hong Kong from deporting fugitives to states that Hong Kong doesn’t hold an extradition treaty with.
Hong Kong, which has a separate judiciary from mainland China, has no extradition treaty with Taiwan, Macau or mainland China. The bill would permit Hong Kong’s court to consider extradition requests from those authorities on a case-by-case basis. Lam presented the bill after a 20-year-old Hong Kong citizen murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan and then fled home to Hong Kong. Without an extradition treaty, Hong Kong’s courts were unable to return the fugitive to Taiwan for trial.
However, critics say the proposal will strengthen Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong and allow mainland Chinese authorities to extract dissidents easily from the Special Administrative Region. The notion of extraditing “fugitives” is particularly distressing for Hong Kongers who remember the events of 2015, when five owners of a Hong Kong bookshop disappeared from Hong Kong and reappeared in mainland Chinese custody—evidently spirited across the border, likely for selling books critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
What have businesses said about the bill?
Hong Kong’s local business associations, which are normally welcoming of Beijing, have been among the proposal’s most vocal critics. The noise from the city’s business community actually forced the Legislative Council to water down its initial proposal and strike nine “white collar” crimes—including “offenses relating to fiscal matters, taxes or duties” and “offenses relating to securities and futures trading”—from the list of extraditable offenses.
Last Thursday, Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-Chiu announced a further softening of the bill. Now extradition requests can only be made if the alleged crime is punishable by at least seven years imprisonment and requests have to come directly from mainland China’s top law courts.
Local business groups seem placated. In a statement, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce said it is “pleased” the government has introduced extra safeguards, while the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong said the latest amendments had “helped strengthen the confidence of all sectors of the community.”
However, the Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) was unimpressed with the changes. In an online commentary, the HKBA said there was “no principled reason” for raising the sentencing threshold to seven years and that the protection it offers to “those who are engaged in business activities” with China are “likely to be illusory.”
Last Thursday, 3,000 law professionals and students donned black suits and marched in silence from the Court of Final Appeal to the Legislative Council building to protest the bill. In previous protests, lawyers bowed their heads in deference to the legislature’s complex. This year, there was no bowing. “The legal sector will not bow to the government,” said Denis Kwok, an elected member of Hong Kong’s Civic Party and an organizer of the march.
Likewise, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, was unmoved after meeting last week with the Chief Secretary for Administration, Matthew Cheung. “AmCham feels that there are too many uncertainties in fundamental sections of the proposed legislation that must be addressed and explained to the broader Hong Kong community before tabling the bill for passage by the Legislative Council,” AmCham said in a statement, adding that rushing the bill threatens Hong Kong as a “center of excellence for the rule of law.”
A joint statement from the Nordic Chambers of Commerce—representing Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway—also expressed concern that the bill “has been fast-tracked without thorough consultation” and that Hong Kong’s reputation as a “stable and transparent center” for trade is at risk.
How China responded
AmCham Hong Kong is just the latest U.S. institution to raise concerns over Beijing’s involvement in Hong Kong. In March, the State Department commented on Hong Kong’s “diminished” autonomy in its annual Hong Kong Policy Act report, while Washington-based think tank the Heritage Foundation noted the region’s declining “judicial effectiveness.” Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly “expressed concern” over the proposed extradition bill. Unsurprisingly, Beijing wants the U.S. to butt out.
“Any fair-minded person would deem the amendment bill a legitimate, sensible and reasonable piece of legislation,” reads an editorial in state-run China Daily. “Unfortunately, some Hong Kong residents have been hoodwinked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies into supporting the anti-extradition campaign,” the editorial says, adding that “foreign forces” are seizing the opportunity to “advance their own strategy to hurt China by trying to create havoc in Hong Kong.”
On the morning after the protests, which culminated in violent clashes between police and a crowd of protestors attempting to storm government headquarters, Lam thanked the people for expressing their views and said some suggestions made by lawmakers would be taken on board as the government continues to push the bill through.
“I and my team have not ignored any views expressed on this very important piece of legislation. We have been listening and listening very attentively.” Lam said. “We are doing this out of our clear consciousness and commitment to Hong Kong.”
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