The ruling Chinese Communist Party's Hong Kong liaison office on Wednesday threw its weight publicly behind plans to change the city's extradition laws to enable renditions of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China.
Beijing's Central Government Liaison Office said in a statement that Hong Kong people should reject "rumors and man-made fears" about planned amendments to the city's Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, claiming that critics of the proposals have "an ulterior motive."
Last month, thousands of people took to the streets in protest at the law, which will allow the Hong Kong government to grant extradition requests on a case-by-case basis with no meaningful judicial oversight, to countries with which it lacks an extradition treaty.
The most likely jurisdiction to use the proposed provision is mainland China, which currently has no extradition treaty with Hong Kong.
Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, who is currently in the U.S. to raise concern over the erosion of Hong Kong's rights and freedoms under Chinese rule, said the changes to the law could have implications for anyone traveling to the city, as well as those who live there.
"All it needs is an affidavit from somebody in China to say that whoever it is they want to punish has committed a criminal offense many years ago ... and then that person can be transferred," Lee told a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) in Washington on Wednesday.
"Once you're in China, you are liable to make confessions before a television camera," he said. "No American resident in Hong Kong is safe once this bill is passed."
Lee was part of the second Hong Kong delegation to visit Washington since the beginning of the year.
However, Beijing's representative in Hong Kong, Wang Zhimin, said in the statement on the Central Liaison Office website that the proposed changes to the law were "urgent."
"The meeting ... expressed the belief that the broader Hong Kong public will be capable of resisting rumor-mongering and fear-mongering by those with ulterior motives, and grasp the truth in all its facets," the statement said.
'Send to China' law
Since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, mainland authorities have handed over 260 criminal suspects to Hong Kong, while none have been surrendered in return, it said.
The proposed amendments have been dubbed the "send to China" law, which sounds very similar in Cantonese to the words "final send-off," meaning a funeral.
Pro-democracy politicians have used protests and filibustering to try to delay its passage through the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), amid a bitter procedural row among lawmakers, a judicial review application and street protests.
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Sang Pu said the usually pro-China business community is also concerned that officials could extradite them to face charges in mainland China, a tactic often used to target investors who have angered powerful vested interests in local government.
"The 'send-to-China' amendments are one thing, but there's another set of rules on criminal judicial mutual assistance, which I call the confiscation rules," Sang said.
"It means that the Hong Kong police can seize your property as part of criminal proceedings in a mainland Chinese court," he said, citing reports and media speculation that Executive Council member Jeffrey Lam had recently sold some property to avoid just such a risk.
"It doesn't matter what phrases he parrots in order to satisfy the demands of those in power," Sang said. "His actions tell you all you need to know."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the administration of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to withdraw the proposals, saying it could expose journalists to criminal trials in mainland Chinese courts.
"Judicial independence and freedom of the press have underpinned Hong Kong's economic success for decades," CPJ Asia program coordinator Steven Butler said in a statement.
"The proposed extradition bill threatens to undermine both by introducing the standards of China's highly politicized judicial system to the territory," he said.
'How safe are you in Hong Kong?'
Germany-based freelance journalist Shi Ming agreed.
"Hong Kong's economic lifeblood stems from the fact that it is line with international standards," Shi told RFA. "If it is cut off from that, then it will become a dead port."
"Under the extradition law ... they won't only arrest Chinese nationals if they go to Hong Kong," he said. "If you could be extradited as a fugitive, then how safe are you in Hong Kong?"
The Hong Kong government claims that adequate safeguards are built into the legislation to prevent China from using the law for political purposes, as extradition to China would take place only after judicial review and a recommendation from Hong Kong's chief executive.
But lawyers told the CPJ that the "judicial review" is a mere procedural step during which judges would not examine the underlying evidence, and that the chief executive is subject to political pressure from the Chinese government, the group said.
Chris Yeung, chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), said the amendments would have a chilling effect on the media in the once-freewheeling city.
While the law is not explicitly aimed at journalists, it "will become a kind of political weapon, a tool that [the mainland government] can use when necessary, and you never know when they will find it necessary," the CPJ quoted Yeung as saying.
China is the world's second worst jailer of journalists, with at least 47 journalists in prison for their work on Dec. 1, 2018, according to the CPJ.
Earlier this month, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned that the amended law could increase Hong Kong's political vulnerability and further erode the city's promised autonomy.
The report found that the bill would remove independent legislative oversight in the extradition process and undermine strong legal protections guaranteed in Hong Kong, leaving the city and its residents exposed to Beijing’s "weak legal system and politically motivated charges."
It said renditions under the proposed amendments could create "serious risks" to U.S. national security and economic interests.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung, Fok Leung-kiu and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.