GBA Brief

Frontier feeling: extradition row shows how borders still matter

The Greater Bay Area needs to break down its internal borders if the region is going to reach its full potential. So say the economists. But a row over a revamp of Hong Kong’s extradition laws shows that freeing up the frontiers isn’t going to be a favourite with everyone. 

The authorities in the city – which enjoys privileged status as a special administrative region – say that they need new legislation to prevent the repeat of a case last year in which a Hongkonger wanted for the alleged murder of his girlfriend in Taiwan could not be sent back to the island.

The government is asking for changes to the law that make the handover of fugitives an easier task, primarily through case-by-case transfers to jurisdictions without prior agreement.

But critics say that the real reason is that Hong Kong’s current extradition treaties lack arrangements with China – and that Beijing wants to make it easier to get back people who have fled across the border.

Concern about the proposals is coming from three main groups in Hong Kong. Firstly there are the anti-Beijing politicians, who go into battle whenever their home’s higher degree of autonomy from China seems to be threatened. They see the amendment purely in political terms, claiming that the bill is being forced through because Hong Kong has failed to legislate a national security law that Beijing wants.

Also fearful of the proposed amendments are the 300 or so visitors from mainland China avoiding the attentions of Xi Jinping’s graft inspectors. These businesspeople (plus a few wayward government officials) started to arrive in the city from the early days of the anti-corruption campaign. At one point so many were holed up at the Four Seasons Hotel in the main business district that it was dubbed the “north-facing watchtower”, presumably because the exiles were spending so much of their time looking back anxiously into China. 

In fact, the hotel isn’t quite the haven that they hoped: the controversial financier Xiao Jianhua of the Tomorrow Group is thought to have been grabbed there by Chinese agents two years ago.

A third group opposing the changes are Hong Kong businesspeople worried that they may have committed wrongdoing in China earlier in their careers (sometimes unwittingly, but perhaps as a result of local conditions, like meeting the demands of bribe-soliciting officials). 

Their fear is that they too might be caught in the net if the laws are altered – hence the determined lobbying of Hong Kong legislators that has seen nine types of commercial crime excluded from the proposed changes. 

Bribery is still on the list of relevant crimes, however, which makes matters more vexing for people like real estate billionaire Joseph Lau (pictured), who was jailed in absentia by a court in nearby Macau five years ago in a bribery case but who has refused to serve his sentence. 

Zhang Xiaoming, the most senior Chinese official with responsibility for Hong Kong, has tried to calm local concerns by saying the proposal is targeted at mainland criminals who fled to the city, rather than at Hongkongers. 

People like Lau don’t seem convinced and he filed a writ at the high court in Hong Kong this month asking that any changes to the laws should not have a retrospective effect. His supporters say that he won’t be alone in wanting to protect his position in a future in which anyone could be shipped back to China for trial on charges of economic crimes.