Hong Kong’s new extradition law: wrong timing for government, bad image for business, and reality check for Beijing
- The city’s business community, normally very receptive towards Beijing, has strongly opposed the law, which would allow fugitives to be sent across the border
- Wang Zhimin, director of the Beijing liaison office, met leaders of six Hong Kong business groups last week
With the backlash against the government’s controversial extradition bill continuing, particularly from the local and overseas business communities, there were raised eyebrows last week when Beijing’s top envoy in Hong Kong held a meeting with representatives of six major local business organisations.
Wang Zhimin, director of the central government’s liaison office, talked to key members of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Chinese Importers’ and Exporters’ Association.
According to the office’s website, Wang briefed them on the “spirit” of the recently ended “two sessions”, the annual gathering of China’s national legislature and top political advisory body.
That left many wondering whether the city’s business elite had used the occasion to air their grievances to Wang about the bill, which would allow the transfer of fugitives from Hong Kong to mainland China, Taiwan and Macau.
Whatever might have been discussed, those gathered represented all the city’s major business interests, and Wang’s invitation was a reflection of their status in Beijing’s eyes.
Given that the local business community has always been seen as pro-establishment and friendly towards Beijing, there is a rich irony in how it has turned out to be the loudest dissenting voice against the bill, giving the government a hard time and refusing to trust the mainland’s legal system.
Local business groups are not alone in this battle – their foreign counterparts, such as the American Chamber of Commerce, have joined the opposition campaign, putting the international spotlight on the issue and forcing the government into a defensive position.
At the same time, while the US and China are in the final stages of hard bargaining to end their trade war, Beijing has recently started a naming-and-shaming campaign against local authorities that fail to follow rules to help overseas investors. After the passage of the Foreign Investment Law in March, the move is seen as an attempt to create a more level playing field for foreign companies, as demanded by the US.
Against such a backdrop, Hong Kong seems to have picked a bad time to table a bill that touches a raw nerve for local as well as foreign businesses. Adding to the intrigue, Beijing has yet to clearly indicate its stance on the controversial bill, in contrast to its recurrent calls for the city to enact national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Meanwhile, the government’s U-turn in exempting nine white-collar crimes from the bill to placate the business community has raised a new question: are businesspeople “more equal” than the rest of us?
This also adds to the perception of social unfairness, despite the government’s argument that it is trying to address legitimate business concerns.
Adding to the irony, some business sector lawmakers are still unwilling to commit their votes to the bill.
For Beijing, the snowballing controversy is yet another reality check that nothing can be taken for granted in this city. While business heavyweights continue to maintain good relations with Beijing and the Hong Kong government, they can still say “no” when push comes to shove.
Wang raised three “hopes” with business leaders when he met them: that they would be confident in the country’s and Hong Kong’s future; that they would help push forward Hong Kong’s integration into the country’s overall development; and that they would support the chief executive and her administration in carrying out their duties.
All this is easier said than done, of course, but give and take is also the reality, for businesses and governments on both sides of the border.