Cliff Buddle
SCMP Columnist
by Cliff Buddle
by Cliff Buddle

Carrie Lam may win the battle to pass Hong Kong’s extradition law. But at what cost?

  • Though not a democracy, Hong Kong is ruled by consultation and consensus. Pushing through the extradition bill against all opposition will upset this understanding and alter the balance of the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement
The fate of the Hong Kong government’s controversial bid to introduce new extradition laws will be decided in the coming days. The bill is due to receive its second reading in the Legislative Council on Wednesday, following a protest march on Sunday which organisers expect to attract 300,000 people. 
Parallels have been drawn with events in 2003, when a bid by the government to push through new national security laws in the face of widespread concern that they would curb freedoms sparked a protest by 500,000. That march prompted lawmakers to withdraw their support and the bill was withdrawn.

Will history repeat itself? Or will the government get the extradition bill over the line? The outcome will tell us much about how Hong Kong is governed today and how much the city has changed.

The new law will allow suspects to be transferred, on a case-by-case basis, to parts of the world which do not already have an extradition treaty with Hong Kong. This includes Taiwan, Macau and mainland China. The concern is that it will allow people in Hong Kong to be tried under the mainland’s legal system, which lacks an independent judiciary and fair trial guarantees. Opposition has come from democrat politicians, the business sector, the diplomatic community, the legal profession, media groups, students, teachers and housewives, among others.
The government has defended the proposals and claimed people do not understand the legislation. The problem is that the more explanations the government provides and the more people understand the bill, the more worried they become.
One key question has not been satisfactorily answered: why is the government so determined to pass this legislation, with its potential to alter the delicate balance of the “one country, two systems” arrangements?
Officials have argued that the law is needed urgently to ensure a Hong Kong citizen accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan can be sent there for trial. But Taiwan says it will not accept his return under the new law. It is difficult to understand why the government has not sought a one-off deal with Taiwan for the suspect’s return. Instead, it has opted for a much broader approach and walked straight into a minefield.
The speed with which the bill is being passed has added to the concerns. The process for the national security bill in 2003 was much criticised. But at least there was a three-month public consultation – not so with extradition. The national security laws were scrutinised by a bills committee in Legco. Three revised versions of the bill were presented and 51 amendments made. This time, that crucial part of the legislative process is to be skipped. The lack of consultation and legislative review for such an important bill is worrying.

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How will Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor react if Sunday’s march is as well attended as expected? It is likely that further concessions will be made. But it is difficult to see how these will overcome concerns about the mainland’s legal system.

The government is expected to be able to muster enough votes in Legco. Is the thinking that, once the bill is passed, the controversy will die down? Is it hoped that Taiwan will change its mind and the murder suspect will be returned after all? Certainly, we could expect the government to be careful in its use of the new law, at least in the near future. But the concerns will not go away.
Lam has made the passing of the bill a test of her governance. Pushing it through in the face of strong public opposition would, however, mark a turning point in the way Hong Kong is ruled.
The chief executive is not elected by universal suffrage. The extradition plan was not part of any manifesto endorsed by the people of Hong Kong. There has long been an understanding that the city must be governed through consultation and consensus. The eventual withdrawal of the national security bill in 2003 is evidence of that.
Good governance requires that this bill be withdrawn
But the events of 2003 also changed the way the “one country, two systems” concept is applied. The central government began to adopt a more hands-on approach to the city. Since the Occupy pro-democracy protests of 2014, there is a growing perception that Beijing has tightened its grip further. The disqualification of democrat lawmakers, the prosecution of activists and the banning of a pro-independence party have all contributed to this view.

The passing of the extradition bill will, rightly or wrongly, be seen as another step towards the unravelling of the “one country, two systems” arrangements. This time, it not only affects the lives of activists, independence advocates and proponents of civil disobedience – it has the potential to affect everyone.

It makes sense for the transfer of suspects between Hong Kong and the mainland to be governed by legal rules and strict safeguards. The disappearance of booksellers from the city, who turned up on the mainland facing allegations there, is a reminder of that.

But talks aimed at putting in place a comprehensive rendition agreement with the mainland have taken place, on and off, for more than 20 years. No deal has been reached. The government should explain why those negotiations failed, what the stumbling blocks were, and why it is now possible to overcome them by transferring suspects on a case-by-case basis.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, now a member of the Executive Council advising Lam, wrote a letter to the Post in April 2000, when secretary for security, explaining why, at that time, details of the negotiations on a rendition agreement could not be made public. She said once agreement had been reached, Legco, the legal sector and others would be fully consulted before a bill was drafted. It would then be submitted to lawmakers for scrutiny. There must, she added, be a consultation phase.

“In dealing with the problem, our first consideration is always to protect the one country, two systems and the interests of the Hong Kong people,” she wrote. “The eventual arrangement will have to be acceptable to the people of Hong Kong or else legislation underpinning the arrangement could never hope to get Legco’s endorsement.”

She was speaking in a different context and at a different time. But Ip’s remarks remain relevant today.

Good governance requires that this bill be withdrawn. Attempts should be made to settle the Taiwan murder case first. Then, the broader extradition plans should be made the subject of a full public consultation with all options considered.

Cliff Buddle is the Post’s editor of special projects