On The Precipice Of Change: Extradition Law Divides RCHK Opinion

Written by Jane Chan


“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

― Pastor Martin Niemöller

50 years ago, President Nixon stepped into China, breaking 25 years of mutual hostility. The prevailing hope was that the country, hosting a considerable portion of the world’s population, would develop into a benevolent, freedom-loving partner in lasting peace and prosperity.

50 years later, these hopes seemed to be rooted in naivety, as China’s authoritarianism begs to differ. However, recent protests over the extradition law give hope to Hongkongers - in the interlude between the protests and Carrie Lam’s future decision to withdraw the amendment, China seems to be on the precipice of change.

Right now, China’s current threats seem to be the most severe since Tian’anmen Square: continuing issues such as renewed coverage on the persecution of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang threaten China’s soft power, whilst an escalating battle between US for economic dominance threatens China’s hard power. Add to this the more pertinent issue - the current amendment to the extradition law - and China faces a decision on whether to liberalise or crack down. Hence, the eruption of widespread, popular protests against chief executive Carrie Lam’s proposed amendments to HK’s extradition laws culminate into a political pivot point for China.

Renewed attempts to pass amendments to the existing extradition law were initially instigated by the need to extradite a murderer back to Taiwan, a small incident largely seen as an excuse to push controversial legislation, especially as Taiwanese authorities have since strongly opposed the amendments which claim to help Taiwan. According to the government bureau, the need for such an amendment is that the current extradition laws are “operationally impracticable”. Their argument is that, under current legislation (referred to as the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance), extradition orders must be publicly approved by the Chief Executive and LEGCO. The public nature provides warning for fugitives to flee Hong Kong. Moreover, the current extradition law acts as a “loophole” for Chinese criminals to seek refuge in Hong Kong.

However, opposition groups fear that the lack of legislative oversight over extradition requests vastly weaken the ability of the courts to defend Hong Kong. Under the new amendments, orders pass only through approval from the Chief Executive, and potential appeals to courts occur behind closed doors, simplifying the process and weakening transparency. More importantly, the extradition agreement now includes China, who, as critics like lawmaker Claudia Mo suggest, can use this weakened process to extradite ‘fugitives’ through framed offences, such as bribery, perjury, and smuggling - a tactic often used in the mainland to indict individuals during the Anti-Corruption Campaign.

The role of the courts in this process is limited too; they must only determine whether there is sufficient prima facie evidence against the suspect. In other words, the suspect is guilty until proven innocent, placing a higher burden on the suspect. The fear is that these loopholes would enable political dissenters to be extradited to the mainland under dubious charges, where they would be trialled under China’s infamously unfair and mysterious rulings.

Though Carrie Lam postponed the amendment, most see this as Beijing’s strategy to rob the protests of much needed momentum.

Placed in the context of China’s rapid encroachment upon Hong Kong’s autonomy, current developments are even more concerning. The 2015 arrests of the anti-China booksellers, the purchase of South China Morning Post by Alibaba, a Chinese state-owned company, and the proposed anthem law, are a few of the many cases in which China has attempted to crackdown on Hongkongers.

We, as a concoction of expats, ‘westernised’ locals, and ‘elites’’ have a general desire to see Hong Kong’s freedoms upheld. Though Carrie Lam postponed the amendment, most see this as Beijing’s strategy to rob the protests of much needed momentum. But so far, according to our TV monitors and live replays of the Sunday protest, their alleged strategy has failed miserably. To withdraw the bill, according to organisers, stops the government from pushing the legislation at any given time. Moreover, according to the bar association, a full withdrawal and complete overhaul of the bill also sets a higher standard for a better executed extradition law. So the question for us becomes: given that we, as privileged individuals have an ‘easy out’ from any real danger in Hong Kong - whether that comes in the form of dual nationality or wealth - given that, should we, as students, teachers, staff, have a say in the current protests?

For most, dual nationalities and an international education cause us to be stuck in a unique, perpetual state of cultural limbo, straddling the lines between clashing cultures. For some, we speak English better than Cantonese or Mandarin, and know more about Europe than our own country. Yet, Hong Kong is our home; where our families have made their living, and where we have grown up. As Sandeep Chulani, PHD student at City University, says, ”In 30 years time, if you come back and you don’t recognise it to be what [Hong Kong] used to be...That is something worth fighting for.”

Yet - is the extradition law and our gradual integration into China, as apocalyptic as it seems?

RCHK activists say that, despite the effect of the extradition law reaching a minority of ‘radicals’, the effect it has on a Hongkonger’s freedom to express criticism would impact everyone, including us: the ability for students to learn about Tiananmen Square and critique the Chinese government for human rights violations would be greatly diminished. IB, a course based on discourse and discussion, would be hindered by the passing of the extradition law. They also believe in the immorality of being passive in the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy, especially since “a lot of people are [and will be] suffering”. They also say that it is not irresponsible for us to join the protest when our own personal stakes are involved, as “everyone on this land will get sent back to China”. When asked if the claim was an exaggeration, they responded “China is known for being inhumane”, implying that the government would have the ability, and would likely extradite any dissenters or critics - foreign, local, or Chinese.

IB, a course based on discourse and discussion, would be hindered by the passing of the extradition law.

However, some critics of the movement express the view that the resistance against the extradition law is futile, seeing Hong Kong’s integration into China is inevitable by 2047. Chulani responded by saying that “2047 is 28 years away. Nobody can predict what will happen then... In any case, the future is unknown, all we have is today. If we cave today, we have no tomorrow.”

Moreover, while the previous consequences of the extradition law are merely speculative, and based on China’s future, political motives, a tangible impact on Hong Kong would be our economy. Long trumpeted as a mecca for investors and expats, the blurring of HK and China’s judicial systems has caused multinationals to reconsider their Hong Kong investments, potentially ruining Hong Kong’s economy. According to Fred Hu, Chairman of Greater China and a Partner at Goldman Sachs, “any perceived erosion of independent judiciary and individual freedom could undermine investor confidence and negatively affect Hong Kong’s future as a leading global business and financial centre.” Even US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, second in the presidential line of succession, stated that, should the extradition law pass, she would reconsider the US special exemptions to HK, which makes it attractive for American businesses.

Despite this, some RCHK students are still in support of the extradition law, at least as a concept. A valid point made by an anonymous source admits, “I get that China has a very aggressive policy and hidden agenda that might prosecute anyone that’s against them.” However, the student also notes that the ability for China to arrest political dissidents is limited. He explains, “Why would they [arrest political dissenters] with all the spotlight that’s already been put on this bill? China has some sense of logic...They won’t...randomly try Hong Kong citizens...because they know the backlash they would get.”

The student admits that the concept of the extradition law is valid. As Carrie Lam said in her press release on Saturday, “the enactment of this bill will help to raise Hong Kong's international profile and also demonstrate that we are a place with excellent rule of law, not only for our own citizens but also in contribution to the combating of serious crime on a cross-border and transnational basis.” Moreover, the issue of extradition of persons such as corrupt officials and murderers in Hong Kong is a valid loophole the government must tackle. It is merely the execution of such amendments which raise serious questions about China’s encroachment upon Hong Kong’s judiciary.

Regardless of such debate, the question of whether we should protest remains, according to RCHK teacher Sam Nicolson, our decision. He admits that, as ‘foreigners’, we may be counterproductive to the protest itself. As he explains, “given China’s notorious dislike of what they determine to be foreign involvement… [even] If I spoke Cantonese, what factor would be drawn up? Would it be the fact that I have a local partner, a child, or is it going to be white face, British passport, that’s going to be the focus point? It is China’s prerogative to limit a Hongkonger’s protests against the law.” Equally, it is China’s prerogative to use foreign involvement as further evidence of the accusations of the movement being “collusion with the West”. However, he still says that “if you believe and care, you should stand up for it.”

According to Nicolson, “We’re not talking about the ‘what if’ [of if I leave]. Expats could equally choose not to leave. To do so denigrates the role of expats.” In particular, he argues that expatriates prop up the economy, through paying taxes. Many also hold long-term ties to Hong Kong through familial and emotional connections.

The same argument also applies to international students - even though we may leave to foreign universities, most of us consider returning as professionals, and have deep emotional and familial ties to Hong Kong.

Chulani supports this stance, as he opines that “[We will] always be the child of two worlds...just because [you] don’t fully belong to either, it only confers a higher burden on you, because you benefit from both.”

What about you? What do you think?