Hong Kong extradition protests: How China's response to a gruesome teenage murder backfired

The extradition law has prompted mass street protests in Hong Kong - Getty Images AsiaPacThe extradition law has prompted mass street protests in Hong Kong - Getty Images AsiaPac
The extradition law has prompted mass street protests in Hong Kong – Getty Images AsiaPac

The extradition law that sparked Hong Kong’s largest protests in decades began with the gruesome discovery of the body of a young woman hidden among park bushes in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, last March. 

Poon Hui-wing, 19, had been allegedly beaten and strangled by her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai, 20, during what should have been a romantic Valentine’s Day trip after she revealed that her unborn child was not his. 

Mr Chan folded her body into a pink suitcase and travelled through the city for a suitable dumping ground. Later that day he calmly boarded a short flight back home to Hong Kong and withdrew money with his murdered girlfriend’s ATM card to pay off his credit card debt. 

The young man confessed to the heinous crime a few weeks later and was arrested for murder. 

However, he could not be easily extradited to Taiwan, despite requests from the island’s authorities, because there is no formal extradition agreement in place. Instead, he was charged with the lesser crime of money-laundering.

The injustice presented an apparent legal loophole, but Hong Kong officials, accused of being in thrall to Beijing, quickly seized on the murder to instigate sweeping changes to the city’s long-vaunted independent legal system. 

Experts say that an existing process that could consider exceptional case-by-case extradition requests was bypassed in favour of what is now a sweeping draft extradition bill. 

This February, the Hong Kong government launched new proposals that would explicitly permit extradition to Taiwan, Macau, and, crucially, allow foreign and Chinese nationals, even those just transiting through the global financial hub, to be sent to mainland China for trial for the first time.

The plan immediately triggered concern among activists, lawyers and the business community, where many warned that exposing Hong Kong residents to China’s mistrusted legal system could risk the city’s autonomy. 

By May, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, had warned that the bill’s passage would threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law. 

However, Beijing quickly backed the bill, calling it a sovereign issue. Zhang Xiaoming, the director of the Chinese office responsible for Hong Kong, argued that the law was needed to prevent the city from becoming a haven for fugitives.  

Critics argue that the law is also a matter of political convenience for Hong Kong’s rulers, who in recent years have failed to intervene when Beijing agents kidnapped a bookseller and a billionaire from their territory. 

Lam Wing-kee, 63, one of five booksellers kidnapped in 2015 and later revealed to be detained in China, has already left Hong Kong over fears that he will be one of the first plucked back to China. 

From his refuge in Taipei, he told UCA News that the extradition law was a “death sentence” for Hong Kong. 

“Beijing will use this law to control Hong Kong completely. Freedom of speech will be lost. In the past, the regime kidnapped its critics, like me, illegally. With this law, they will abduct their critics legally,” he warned. 

His fears appear to be shared by a large proportion of Hong Kong’s population. 

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused to back down - Credit: Tyrone Siu/ReutersHong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused to back down - Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused to back down Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

In April, as many as 130,000 demonstrators marched to the Legislative Council building, resulting in amendments to the draft law that would raise the proposed extradition limit to crimes that carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. 

The concessions were not enough. 

On June 9, Hong Kong witnessed its largest protest since the 1997 handover from British rule. Organisers say more than 1 million people, out of a population of 7.5 million, turned out, while police estimate the crowd at 240,000.

On June 13, violent clashes broke out between police and protestors as they gathered by the Legislative Council to prevent a vote on the bill from proceeding, injuring 72.

Under the current proposal, Hong Kong’s leader would start and finally approve an extradition following a request from a foreign jurisdiction but only after court hearings including any possible appeals. However, the bill removes Legislative Council oversight of extradition arrangements. 

Taiwan, which strongly opposes the bill as it fears Taiwanese citizens could be exposed to rendition to China, has vowed to refuse to take back Mr Chan to be tried for murder if the law is passed. 

Mr Chan could be released as early as October, but his crime leaves a chaotic aftermath with profound implications for Hong Kong. With the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowing to plough ahead and protesters refusing to back down until the law is scrapped, there appears to be no middle ground. 

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