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Hong Kong bookseller disappearances

Has Hong Kong become a home for fugitives fleeing mainland law enforcement?

Song Sio Chong says the Hong Kong police force should be careful when deciding whether Lam Wing-kee or any of the Causeway Bay booksellers deserve protection

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 11:56am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 7:54pm

Is it too early to raise the question of whether Hong Kong will become a haven for absconders? In recent times, we’ve seen refugees coming here to seek asylum, and now fugitives from the mainland’s law enforcement authorities coming here for protection.

Bookseller Lam Wing-kee, who was arrested and detained by mainland authorities for smuggling illegal books, has breached the conditions of his bail by returning to Hong Kong. Before giving him round-the-clock protection, the Hong Kong police should carefully consider the implications of their decision.

First, despite the lack of a judicial assistance agreement on criminal matters between Hong Kong and the mainland, mainland authorities have in the past voluntarily delivered to Hong Kong numerous fugitives who had committed crimes in Hong Kong, as a gesture of good faith. Mainland police may now ask for a similar favour in return. If their request is denied, the relationship between the central government and Hong Kong could be adversely affected.

Bookseller Lam Wing-kee may leave Hong Kong over safety fears

Second, under Article 95 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong and the mainland should long ago have reached an agreement on criminal judicial assistance. By shielding Lam, the Hong Kong government will give the impression it has no intention to reach such an agreement. This will encourage other fugitives fleeing from the mainland to come to the city to avoid justice. Such developments may jeopardise Hong Kong’s position under “one country, two systems” and aggravate the city’s political divisions.

Police protection for Lam may attract troublemakers

Third, police protection for Lam may attract troublemakers who will take every opportunity to create trouble then blame Beijing for it. And how much would this protection cost our taxpayers? If the protection works well, the costs may be high; but if it fails, the consequences may be disastrous.

Because of our “two systems”, some laws that existed before the handover have endured. In colonial times, if a bookseller had circulated books against the queen or the British government, firm action would have been taken against him. It is logical to ask why the Hong Kong government did not take action against the Causeway Bay booksellers.

We should learn from the wisdom of America’s founding fathers. Article 4, Section 2 of the US constitution says that a person “charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime, who shall flee from justice, and be found in another state, shall on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime”.

Especially in light of the fact that mainland authorities have in the past returned criminals to Hong Kong, acknowledging the city’s jurisdiction over the cases, there is no reason Hong Kong should not do likewise, given that Hong Kong is a special administrative region directly under the central government.

It is up to Lam to decide if he should be protected by the Hong Kong police for an indefinite period of time, or surrender himself willingly to mainland authorities and answer the charge of selling illegal books.

Song Sio Chong is a veteran Hong Kong commentator and professor at Shenzhen University’s Research Centre of Hong Kong and Macau Basic Law