Political storm over controversial Hong Kong extradition bill set to escalate as pro-government lawmakers consider bypassing committee stage

By Alvin Lum, South China Morning Post

This article first appeared in South China Morning Post on 13 May 2019
Link to original article: HERE

  • Pro-government lawmakers considering an unprecedented move to bypass normal vetting procedures
  • Sources say the most extreme situation could see the bill being sent straight to the full council for debate and a vote

The political storm over a contentious extradition bill is set to escalate with pro-government lawmakers considering an unprecedented move to bypass normal vetting procedures to speed up its passage, the Post has learned.

The strategy was floated after the government expressed “utmost regret” over the “uncontrollable” disorder at a Legislative Council committee meeting on the bill on Saturday, when clashes between rival camps ended with at least four lawmakers claiming they were injured.

The meeting was adjourned before a chairman could be elected to begin scrutiny of the bill, which would allow a case-by-case transfer of fugitives to places Hong Kong lacks an extradition deal with, including mainland China and Taiwan.

Two sources familiar with the thinking of the pro-establishment camp said the bloc would likely take the matter out of the bills committee’s hands entirely by dissolving it or bypassing it, if the next meeting on Tuesday descended into further chaos.

“Tuesday’s meeting will be the pro-democracy camp’s last chance,” one source said.

He was referring to the meeting arranged by the pro-government camp, but the pan-democrats also planned to convene one 15 minutes earlier in the same room to try to gain control of the committee.

The sources said the most extreme situation could see the bill being sent directly to the full council for debate and a vote, potentially saving the government up to a month.

The move would mean bypassing bills committee scrutiny – a conventional step taken for most draft laws before being discussed and voted on by the full council.

Officials have stressed the urgency of passing the bill to allow the extradition of a murder suspect to Taiwan who is currently in jail in Hong Kong over a related offence and could be released in October at the earliest.

Claudia Mo, with fellow lawmakers Raymond Chan (left) and Eddie Chu, says the pan-democrats will continue to fight the bill. Photo: Dickson Lee

But the pro-democracy camp is gravely concerned that the bill could see people extradited to the mainland for political reasons.

The bill has also sparked concern among the local and international business community, and resulted in tens of thousands of people taking to the streets last month in protest.

If the government’s allies press ahead with dissolving or bypassing the committee, they would need to first file a special motion to the House Committee, in which the camp has a majority, to trigger a vote. Sources said the lawmakers could then choose between the relatively mild option of setting up a small task force to vet the bill or send it directly to a full council meeting.

Saturday’s committee meeting descended in chaos. Photo: Edmond So

But even some pro-establishment lawmakers privately expressed reservations about the latter option, which the government and the camp had previously objected to. “It would be a very sad day for Legco if that was the case,” one lawmaker said.

The pan-democratic camp’s convenor, Claudia Mo Man-ching, said they had foreseen such a possibility and would do all they could to block the bill.

The camp’s filibustering tactics had already resulted in Democrat James To Kun-sun, who was originally tasked with presiding over the bills committee until a chairman was elected, being removed from the role.

He was replaced by pro-government lawmaker Abraham Razack through a vote arranged by the Legco secretariat.

Jasper Tsang says continued chaos will be a lose-lose situation for everyone. Photo: Edward Wong

The pan-democrats, however, disavowed the move.

Razack said on Sunday he had a duty to perform on Tuesday but that the matter was essentially “in the hands of the government” to decide on how it would go.

Former Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing told a television talk show that bypassing the bills committee would be the only way to break the deadlock because continued chaos would be a lose-lose situation for everyone.

But his predecessor Andrew Wong Wang-fat, an expert on parliamentary conventions, was against dropping part of the legislative process, although he agreed there was nothing in the rule book to prevent it.

Andrew Wong says bypassing the bills committee is not the preferred way. Photo: Sam Tsang

“This is not a preferred way as there will be insufficient discussion to settle differences,” he said.

Both former presidents called on both sides to calm down and return to the table.

In an opinion piece in Monday’s Post, Hong Kong’s No 2 official Matthew Cheung Kin-chung wrote that concerns and misgivings over the bill were “simply unfounded and unwarranted” and there was “absolutely no hidden agenda” behind the proposal.

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