By James Pomfret
HONGKONG (Reuters) – A proposed new extradition law in Hong Kong could extend China’s “coercive reach” into the financial hub and create serious risks for U.S. national security and economic interests there, a U.S. congressional commission said.
Various groups in Hong Kong, including democracy activists, have objected to the proposed legislation, which would allow case-by-case extraditions from the city to countries without formal extradition agreements, including mainland China.
“The extradition bill could pose significant risks to U.S. national security and economic interests in the territory,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in a report released on Wednesday.
The bipartisan commission monitors the security implications of U.S.-China relations.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, asked about the U.S. report, said at a daily briefing in Beijing that Hong Kong affairs were an internal matter for China, and China resolutely opposed foreign interference.
The commission said the law could provide grounds for the United States to “re-examine important elements of its current relationship with Hong Kong, as outlined in the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act”.
The 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong policy act allows the United States to engage with Hong Kong as a non-sovereign entity distinct from China on matters of trade and economics.
Those areas of special treatment for Hong Kong include visas, law enforcement including extraditions, and investment.
The U.S. commission did not specifically mention what areas might be re-examined, nor did it say if the policy act itself might be jeopardised.
“One major concern is that the bill could allow Beijing to pressure the Hong Kong government to extradite U.S. citizens under false pretences,” it said.
“This could affect the estimated 85,000 U.S. citizens and over 1,300 U.S. firms in Hong Kong – about 300 of which base their Asia regional operations in the territory.”
Taiwan authorities have said the extradition law could undermine Hong Kong’s legal safeguards, and pose a risk to Taiwan citizens who might find themselves extradited to mainland China from Hong Kong.
The U.S. commission also noted that the U.S. navy might have to stop visits to Hong Kong.
“With the heightened potential risks of extradition for U.S. Navy personnel in the territory if detained or arrested during routine port calls, the United States could consider alternative ports for rest and replenishment in the region.”
Besides opposition from legal, human rights and journalist groups, the bill has also drawn a rare backlash from the foreign business community, as well as Hong Kong’s usually pro-Beijing business sector, the commission said.
Despite attempts to thwart the bill by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy legislators, the city’s largely pro-Beijing legislature is expected to adopt it in the coming months.
Under the proposed law, every extradition request would have to be signed off by Hong Kong’s leader, and be approved by a Hong Kong court, to safeguard individual rights.
When asked, however, whether Hong Kong could realistically reject an extradition request from China, Hong Kong’s justice and security secretaries skirted the question in a news conference on Tuesday.
They also sidestepped questions on China’s legal system and whether activists might be at risk of being extradited on national security grounds but re-iterated that no one would be sent off for political offences, nor to face a death sentence.
Despite such reassurances, more than 100,000 people recently marched against the extradition laws in one of the biggest protests in the former British colony for years..
(Reporting by James Pomfret, additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Robert Birsel)