BEIJING – Thousands of protesters blocked entry to Hong Kong’s government headquarters Wednesday, delaying a debate over a legislative proposal that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The protest, which follows a weekend demonstration that drew hundreds of thousands of people opposed to the extradition amendments, reflects growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland.
A closer look at the issue:
WHY WERE PEOPLE PROTESTING?
Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise the territory’s legal independence, long viewed as one of the key differences between Hong Kong and mainland China.
Critics believe the legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China’s murky judicial system, in which political opponents have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security transgressions. Opponents say once charged, the suspects may face unfair proceedings in a system where the vast majority of criminal trials end in conviction.
The legislation’s opponents include members of legal, business and human rights organizations, as well as scores of ordinary citizens who cherish Hong Kong’s reputation for the rule of law.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said that safeguards have been added to the legislation to ensure human rights are protected.
WHAT ARE THE DETAILS OF THE LEGISLATION?
Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis. China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
The proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.
Lam has said the changes are necessary for Hong Kong to uphold justice and meet its international obligations. Without them, she said Hong Kong risks becoming a “fugitive offenders’ haven.”
Supporters have pointed to the case of Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong man who admitted to Hong Kong police that he killed his girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan. Because Hong Kong and Taiwan don’t have an extradition agreement, he has not been sent to Taiwan to face charges there, though he has been jailed in Hong Kong on money laundering charges.
WHAT IS HONG KONG’S RELATIONSHIP TO MAINLAND CHINA?
Hong Kong was a British colony that was returned to China in 1997 under the framework of “one country, two systems.”
The agreement guaranteed Hong Kong the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years. As a result, residents of the semiautonomous territory enjoy far greater freedoms than people on the mainland, such as the freedom to protest or publicly criticize the government.
Nevertheless, the Communist Party exerts influence on the Hong Kong government.
Hong Kong voters are not allowed to directly elect their chief executive. Lam was elected in 2017 by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites and is widely seen as the Communist Party’s favored candidate.
The Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, includes a sizable camp of pro-Beijing lawmakers.
Beijing has made substantial efforts in recent years to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland. Last October, China opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge, connecting Hong Kong and Macau to the city of Zhuhai in southern Guangdong province. The government has named the three combined locales the “Greater Bay Area,” which it aims to turn into a center for technological innovation and advanced manufacturing.
HAVE FREEDOMS BEEN ERODING?
Those in Hong Kong who anger China’s central government have come under greater pressure since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of Hong Kong’s rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is currently being investigated for leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.
In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the “Umbrella Revolution” were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.
In May, Germany confirmed it had granted asylum to two people from Hong Kong who, according to media reports, were activists fleeing tightening restrictions at home. It was the first known case in recent years of a Western government accepting political refugees from Hong Kong.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE EXTRADITION BILL?
Lam declared her resolve to move forward with the legislation, though it was no longer clear when the legislative debate would take place. A vote was expected this summer.
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