HONG KONG (AP) — With Britain the latest country to scrap its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, the focus in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory has returned to the concerns about China’s legal system that set off months of anti-government protests last year.
Those sometimes violent demonstrations — themselves sparked by an extradition bill — were used as justification by Beijing to impose a sweeping new security law on June 30 that has been cited by Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada in suspending their extradition agreements with Hong Kong.
The moves underscore a growing divide between authoritarian China and the U.S. and other like-minded democracies over human rights and other issues. Just three years ago, Australia’s conservative government was making a high-profile push for an extradition treaty with China, an effort that ran afoul of parliamentary opposition. Now, not only has Australia suspended extradition with Hong Kong, it is warning its citizens of the risk of arbitrary detention in China.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in London on Tuesday to discuss China-related issues with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, one day after Britain suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, called the step a gross interference in his country’s internal affairs.
The key issue, paralleling one in the Hong Kong protests, is the possibility that suspects returned to the city could be handed over to Chinese law enforcement and disappear into the mainland’s opaque and frequently abusive legal system. China says the new security law is needed to combat terrorism and separatism and prevent Hong Kong from becoming a base for subverting Chinese state power.
“Extradition, at the bottom of it, is a political act. It’s a political act whether or not you surrender a person,” said Philip Dykes, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association. “Extradition treaties with Hong Kong were always on the basis that whatever happens, a person will not be removed to the mainland.”
It was a separate piece of extradition legislation that launched last year’s protests, one that would have permitted sending criminal suspects from Hong Kong to China. While the Hong Kong legal system’s fairness and transparency has helped establish the city as a center for business and finance, China’s Communist Party-dominated courts are accused of handing down convictions based on political considerations and using coerced confessions.
What became the biggest political crisis in the former British colony since its 1997 handover to Chinese sovereignty was triggered by a murder case. A young Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, allegedly killed his girlfriend while on vacation in Taiwan and fled back home.
Hong Kong authorities could not send Chan to Taiwan for trial because of the lack of an extradition agreement. The government cited Chan’s case as an example of the loophole the proposed extradition legislation would close, allowing Hong Kong to transfer fugitives to any jurisdiction with which it did not have a treaty, including Taiwan and mainland China.
The proposal triggered a massive backlash from Hong Kong residents, who feared that suspects could be sent to the mainland for trial. Though the government withdrew the bill during the protests, the demonstrations took on a broader anti-government and anti-police agenda and grew increasingly violent.
China’s detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 had already focused concern on the undermining of the legal autonomy the territory was promised when the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.
The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was abducted from his vacation home in Thailand and later appeared twice in videotaped confessions, the second time after being taken off a train by police in eastern China in January 2018 while in the company of two Swedish diplomats.
Another of the booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, later fled to Taiwan.
The prospect of falling afoul of the new law and disappearing into the Chinese legal system is prompting others to leave as well. Nathan Law, a leading member of Hong Kong’s opposition movement, fled to Britain after the law was enacted.
Simon Cheng, a former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong who had left earlier, was granted political asylum in Britain earlier this month.
China has pledged to retaliate for Britain’s decisions to cancel its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and ban the sale of military-grade equipment to the territory.
“China urges the British side to abandon the illusion of continuing colonial influence in Hong Kong … so as to avoid further damage to China-Britain relations,” foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Tuesday.
China’s dissatisfaction is based on issues of national pride as well as more practical concerns. Under President Xi Jinping, China has pushed hard for the return of corrupt officials and others who have fled abroad with their ill-gotten gains. While that effort has scored some successes, it has been frustrated by the lack of extradition treaties with key countries.
Canceling extradition to Hong Kong represents a further vote of no-confidence in China’s legal system, one already registered by the refusal of the U.S., Britain and other nations to sign extradition agreements with Beijing.
Australia abandoned plans to do so in 2017. Parliament’s endorsement of the treaty was to be a highlight of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Australia in March of that year, a high point in a volatile diplomatic relationship. Since then, ties have deteriorated to a historical low.