HONG KONG, at one time a citadel of free speech and rule of law, is gradually being sucked into China’s ruling system, which respects neither. This is the significance of the senseless guilty verdicts issued last week against nine organizers of the 2014 protests in Hong Kong. They were convicted of charges including conspiracy and incitement of public nuisance, charges with the sole purpose of chilling free speech and assembly and marginalizing the pro-democracy movement.
Hong Kong also plans to change its extradition laws, making it easier for China to seize and prosecute people for political purposes. The changes mark an unmistakable erosion of freedoms that were promised in the 1997 handover from Britain. The joint declaration between Britain and China declared that freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, travel, movement, correspondence and belief, among others, would be ensured by law in the colony for 50 years. But China has said the joint declaration “no longer has any practical significance.” The promise of “one country, two systems” is slipping away.
Why does extradition matter? Consider Lam Wing-kee, founder of a bookstore in Hong Kong and one of five booksellers who disappeared in late 2015. The books the store published were critical of China’s Communist Party leaders, often carrying gossip, and banned on the mainland, where censorship is the rule, but widely sold in Hong Kong’s freer climate. When he broke from his Chinese captors eight months after his disappearance, Mr. Lam described how he had been abducted by mainland officials, held in solitary confinement, frequently interrogated and ultimately forced to make a scripted “confession” that he had produced books banned on the mainland. Another of the five, Gui Minhai, 54, a Chinese-born naturalized Swedish citizen, remains in custody.
Now at the forefront of a recent protest against the new extradition laws, Mr. Lam said he might be forced to leave Hong Kong. “If I don’t go, I will be extradited,” he said. “I don’t trust the government to guarantee my safety, or the safety of any Hong Kong resident.”
The current law in Hong Kong requires that, if there is no standing extradition agreement with another country, extradition can happen only after the chief executive, who is appointed by Beijing, signs off on a case-by-case basis with review by the legislature. Hong Kong has no agreement with China, and talks have gone on, inconclusively, for about two decades about an agreement. The changes being proposed would open the gates to case-by-case extradition to China, without the legislative review. The fear is that, in practice, the changes would give China free rein to pursue dissidents, journalists and human rights activists in Hong Kong.
Britain has raised concerns about the new extradition law, but China insisted it is an internal affair. The State Department’s deputy spokesman, Robert Palladino, told reporters, “We’re aware of that legislation, and we’re going to follow related developments to it closely.” This is a poor response that gives Beijing a green light to continue the march of authoritarianism in Hong Kong.