The extradition law is part of China’s campaign to silence its perceived enemies around the world and conscript foreign nations in this endeavor. But the inability of the Hong Kong government to pass it will set back China’s efforts to convince Western democracies to reach similar agreements. Only three Western democracies — France, Spain and Portugal — have extradition agreements with China. Australia refused in 2017, and few others are expected now to sign up.
Hong Kong’s massive marches against what is clearly viewed as Beijing’s overreach also stand as a clear reminder of the danger even a partially free society, such as Hong Kong, poses to an authoritarian state such as China. No wonder Communist Party mouthpieces such as the Global Times are now blaming the United States for masterminding the rallies, while Communist Party supporters, such as George Lung Chee-ming, a prominent Hong Kong insurance executive, are publicly describing the students who are leading the demonstrations as “sick.”
The original impetus for the extradition legislation was a Valentine’s Day 2018 murder in Taiwan, allegedly perpetrated by a Hong Kong man on vacation with his girlfriend. According to the police, he strangled her, stuffed her body in a suitcase and dumped it near a train station before returning to Hong Kong. Back home, he reportedly admitted to the crime, but the authorities could not extradite him to Taiwan to stand trial because the two territories don’t have an agreement. Instead, Hong Kong prosecuted him for a lesser offense, money laundering, and on April 29 a Hong Kong court sentenced him to 29 months in jail, with the chance for an early release in October.
The authorities in Hong Kong used the killing to push a bill that would allow Hong Kong to hand over alleged criminals not just to Taiwan but also to China. This sparked fears in Hong Kong that the new law would be exploited by China to prosecute Hong Kong-based political dissidents, journalists or business executives from any country suspected of breaking Chinese laws. Communist Chinese legal authorities have a long history of ginning up bogus cases against people they don’t like. So having such a law on the books could have a chilling effect on anyone in Hong Kong who criticizes China or has a dispute with the authorities or businesses there.
How China treats Hong Kong is important for the fate of Taiwan, an island of 23 million, which boasts a robust democracy, a lively press and a dynamic civil society. China claims that Taiwan is one of its provinces and has announced that it wants to use the “one country, two systems” model to unite with Taiwan. But China is widely viewed as having already violated that promise.
Around Taiwan, China’s apparent violation of the terms of its agreement with Hong Kong has sparked widespread criticism. On June 9, as people marched in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, vowed on her Twitter account that “as long as I’m President, 'one country, two systems’ will never be an option.”
The protests in Hong Kong already seem to be strengthening Tsai’s hand. In January, the opposition Nationalist Party, which has generally been closer to China, did well in a midterm election. But on June 13, Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party nominated her to run for reelection next January. A few weeks ago, it had appeared that she was going to face a tougher primary, given her party’s defeat earlier this year.
Tsai’s potential opponents have been ham-handed in their response. When asked by reporters, one candidate from the Nationalist Party named Han Kuo-yu pleaded ignorance about what he called the Hong Kong “parade." Another candidate, Terry Gou, has labeled China’s “one country, two systems” a failure, but Gou’s firm, the Taiwan manufacturer Foxconn, has invested so much money in China that he has left himself open to allegations that he is too close to Beijing.
The Nationalist Party will choose its candidate in July. But the stage has already been set for yet another backlash against candidates in Taiwan who are perceived to be too close to China — and that could lead to another major defeat for Beijing.