By Austin Ramzy, The New York Times
This article first appeared in The New York Times on 11 May 2019
Link to original article: HERE
HONG KONG — Anger over a proposal that would let people suspected of crimes be extradited to mainland China led to pandemonium in Hong Kong’s legislature on Saturday, as lawmakers scuffled and at least one was carried out of the chamber on a stretcher.
It was the most vivid display to date of the deep divide in the semiautonomous Chinese city over the legislation. Tens of thousands of people marched on the Legislative Council last month to protest the bill, the largest demonstration in Hong Kong since the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014.
The bill would let Hong Kong’s government send people suspected of crimes to jurisdictions with which it does not currently have extradition agreements. The government says it is urgently needed because a Hong Kong man accused of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan last year could otherwise go free.
Both sides of the dispute agree that the man should face trial. But opposition lawmakers, rights groups, lawyers’ associations, foreign governments and prominent voices in Hong Kong’s powerful business community have expressed concern that the extradition bill would subject people in the city to the mainland Chinese legal system, which is opaque and heavily influenced by the governing Communist Party.
Pro-democracy opposition lawmakers have tried to stop the bill, proposing a narrower alternative that would allow extradition only to Taiwan. The opposition, which lost much of its clout after several pro-democracy lawmakers were disqualified in 2016 and 2017, is waging a procedural fight against the proposal.
The chaos erupted on Saturday as two committees tried to meet simultaneously to consider the bill — one led by the opposition and the other by pro-Beijing lawmakers, each claiming that the other was illegitimate. Gary Fan, a member of the opposition camp, was taken out of the legislature on a stretcher after he fell while trying to take a microphone away from another politician. His office said later that he was conscious and awaiting treatment at a hospital.
The government has said it needs the bill’s broad authorization for extraditions to keep the city from becoming a haven for criminal suspects. But opponents say opening up extraditions to mainland China would further erode the unique legal status of Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to China in 1997 under a framework called “one country, two systems.” That arrangement allows the city its own government and legal and economic systems, as well as far better protection of civil liberties than on the mainland.
Mainland China has long been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements. On Thursday, the city’s top official, Carrie Lam, denied that that was because of concerns about the quality of its judicial system. Several opposition lawmakers were removed from that meeting for interrupting Ms. Lam and calling her a liar.
After business groups raised concerns this year that the bill could put people at risk of being sent to the mainland over financial disputes, the government dropped nine economic crimes from the list of offenses that could lead to extradition.
But that did not mollify all the bill’s critics. The Hong Kong Bar Association asked last month why, if mainland courts could not be trusted to deal with economic crimes, they should be trusted with handling other criminal cases.
This past week, a United States congressional commission sharply criticized the extradition proposal, saying it “would diminish Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe place for U.S. and international business operations, and could pose increased risks for U.S. citizens and port calls in the territory.”
The report also said the bill could violate provisions of the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which outlines American policy toward the city. Under that legislation, if Hong Kong is deemed to be insufficiently autonomous from China, the president can suspend agreements with the city on trade, investment, visas and extraditions.
Edward Yau, Hong Kong’s commerce secretary, said the questions raised by the American commission’s report showed why Hong Kong lawmakers needed to examine the proposal “so that we can make the bill workable and we can allow different views to be expressed.”
Taiwan officials have asked the Hong Kong authorities for help in extraditing Chan Tong-kai, the man suspected of killing his girlfriend. But they have also raised objections to the legislation. China considers self-governing Taiwan to be part of its territory, and Taiwan has said it will oppose any agreement that undermines its sovereignty.
A spokesman for Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said on Thursday that Taiwan would not pursue the extradition of Mr. Chan if the extradition legislation put Taiwanese visitors and residents in Hong Kong at risk of being sent to mainland China. Opposition lawmakers say that undermines the government’s claim that the bill must be passed now.
Mr. Chan was convicted in Hong Kong last month of money laundering in connection with the possession of his dead girlfriend’s cash and valuables, and he was sentenced to 29 months in prison. With time served and good behavior, he could be released in October, said John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security.
Local officials have said they fear Mr. Chan could flee the city after his release unless an extradition arrangement with Taiwan is reached first.