The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This may be China’s worst assault yet on the rule of law in Hong Kong

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Shek Lai-him, center, with pro-democracy lawmaker Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, right, in Hong Kong on Saturday. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Martin Lee is the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.

For generations, Hong Kong has been a safe harbor from the chaos of Communist China.

Yet in January 2017, Chinese Canadian billionaire businessman Xiao Jianhua was abducted in Hong Kong from the Four Seasons Hotel by mainland agents, spirited off to China and not seen since. In 2015, five Hong Kong publishers vanished. One of them, Lam Wing-kee, recalled how he was kidnapped and forced to make a televised confession. “I also want to tell the whole world,” Lam said after escaping. “This isn’t about me, this isn’t about a bookstore. This is about everyone.” He was right.

Why were these people abducted? Because there is no extradition law between Hong Kong and China. There is no extradition law because there is no rule of law in China, where the Chinese Communist Party dictates who is innocent and who is guilty. For the same reason, the United States has no extradition arrangements with China (though it does with Hong Kong).

The Hong Kong government is poised to pass an extradition law that will legalize such kidnappings and threatens to destroy Hong Kong’s free society. If the United States and other governments around the world don’t act immediately to pressure Beijing and Hong Kong to withdraw the changes, the law could be rubber-stamped into effect as early as next week.

The law will allow Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has shown no independence from Beijing, to transfer anyone at China’s request. All that will be needed to set the process in motion is a simple affidavit that a “crime” of some kind has happened. Needless to say, this is a mockery of the rule of law.

In April, 130,000 Hong Kong citizens turned out in our city’s narrow streets to oppose extradition to China. But public opinion can’t stop this law.

Over the past few years, Beijing disqualified six elected Hong Kong pro-democracy legislators by bogus means, and it now fully controls the legislature. Despite efforts by democratically elected legislators — including unprecedented fisticuffs in the Legislative Council last Saturday — the Hong Kong government has the votes to pass the extradition law quickly.

The United States has a special interest in blocking this law — and indeed may be Beijing’s special target of the law. There are about 85,000 U.S. citizens living or working in Hong Kong, which for decades has been their safe harbor for those operating in greater China — teachers and preachers, as well as executives of 1,300 U.S. companies in Hong Kong, including financial services firms and technology giants such as Google.

Beijing could extradite Americans in Hong Kong on trumped-up charges as a way to extract company trade secrets, software and other intellectual property. Americans either residing in Hong Kong or visiting Hong Kong could end up jailed in China.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong strongly objected to the proposed extradition law, citing “grave concerns” about the absence of the rule of law in China. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a group that advises Congress, says the change in extradition law “could pose significant risk to U.S. national security and economic interests in the territory,” allowing “Beijing to pressure the Hong Kong government to extradite U.S. citizens under false pretenses.” The commission noted that U.S. Navy personnel could be at risk during routine port calls in Hong Kong’s deep harbor.

The heart of this crisis is that Beijing views extradition as a political tool — not as a legal matter. In the case of Canada’s arrest of the chief financial officer of mainland telecommunications giant Huawei, Beijing objects to Canada extraditing the accused to the United States to face charges. Characteristically, the Chinese government is treating the case as a matter of international politics, not extradition law.

The Hong Kong government claims it is rushing through changes in extradition to close a so-called legal loophole — but this supposed loophole has existed for more than two decades. The loophole is no threat to Hong Kong freedoms, whereas the proposed amendments to the extradition law certainly are.

By demanding this law, Beijing violates the spirit of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, with its “one country, two systems” pledge that Hong Kong would not be forced to adopt Communist laws and systems and could remain an international city safeguarded by the rule of law.

Hong Kong became a world-class city in part because of the trade that flows through our harbor. If this extradition law is passed, Americans, Canadians and many other nationalities could become potential hostages to extradition claims driven by the political agenda of Beijing.

The time for the world to act to protect Hong Kong’s free society and legal system is now — not when Hong Kong people and others are taken to be jailed in China.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Hong Kong’s new extradition laws open the gates to Chinese repression

The Post’s View: China’s repression in Hong Kong is hurting its own cause

The Post’s View: Hong Kong’s rapid descent into repression