Proposed amendments to Hong Kong's extradition laws could further erode the city's promised autonomy, and pose a security risk for U.S. citizens and companies, a U.S. government report has warned.
The planned changes to the city's Fugitive Offenders Ordinance will allow the Hong Kong government to respond to case-by-case requests for extradition in the absence of a bilateral treaty.
The most likely jurisdiction to use the proposed provision is the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which currently has no bilateral arrangement with Hong Kong.
"A Hong Kong government extradition bill would—if passed into law—increase the territory’s susceptibility to Beijing’s political coercion and further erode Hong Kong’s autonomy," the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in a report published on its website on Tuesday.
The report cited a "broad range of offenses" carrying a minimum three-year jail sentence in Hong Kong that would be eligible under the amendments to the Ordinance.
"The bill would remove independent legislative oversight in the extradition process," it said. "Such changes would undermine the strong legal protections guaranteed in Hong Kong and leave the territory exposed to Beijing’s weak legal system and politically motivated charges."
Meanwhile, any renditions under the proposed amendments could create "serious risks" to U.S. national security and economic interests, the report warned, adding that the amendments, if passed, would call into question key aspects of U.S. policy towards the city, enshrined in the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.
It said recent intrusions by Beijing into Hong Kong’s civic affairs are already raising concerns that the city is losing the freedoms and autonomy that once distinguished it from cities across the internal immigration border in mainland China.
"The new arrangement would diminish Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe place for U.S. and international business operations, and could pose increased risks for U.S. citizens and port calls in the territory," it said.
'Powerful legal tool' for Beijing
The amended law would also act as a "powerful legal tool" enabling the ruling Chinese Communist Party to intervene in Hong Kong politics and civil life, it said.
"Passage of the bill would almost certainly make operations harder for pro-democracy advocates and the business community, who are already worried about Beijing’s illegal detention of Hong Kong and other foreign citizens," the report said.
"This report from the USCC reflects its concern over the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance," Civic Party co-founder Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal profession in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) told RFA.
"The U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act is a very important piece of policy, but now there are warning bells being rung for it," Kwok said. "I hope that the Hong Kong government won't just carry on regardless."
Press groups have already warned that the new law could both threaten the safety of journalists, who have traditionally used the city as a safe haven, and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms of the press, of speech and association, as well as an independent judiciary and separate legal system, under the "one country, two systems" framework that has sheltered peaceful critics of Beijing until now.
But pro-democracy politicians and rights activists say they have little faith in the Hong Kong government's promises that rendition requests from Beijing will be subjected to stringent human rights protections.
Ivan Choy, a senior politics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the USCC report is the latest in a string of similar reports to come out of Washington warning of threats to Hong Kong's autonomy.
"Many reports from the U.S. Congress have indicated that they are worried about the deterioration of the situation for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong," Choy said.
Diminishing space for freedom of expression
He said the ouster of six pro-democracy LegCo members and the disqualification of election hopefuls based on their political views were among the concerns raised.
Diminishing space for freedom of expression was also a concern, as shown by the refusal of a work visa to Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet after he hosted a luncheon with a pro-independence guest speaker at the city's Foreign Correspondents' Club, Choy added.
"They clearly feel that the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance isn't an isolated incident," he said.
Edward Yau, secretary for Commerce and Economic Development in the Hong Kong government, dismissed the concerns expressed in the report, however.
"[This report] shows that the bill has raised many different concerns," Yau said.
"But I think it's a bit of leap to say that our arrangements for fugitives will affect the business environment, or indeed the situation in other countries."
He called on LegCo to pass the amendments as soon as possible, and to
use its debates to dispel "misconceptions."
Pro-democracy leaders and rights activists in Hong Kong warned last month that more mass demonstrations are likely if the government presses ahead in the face of public opposition.
The warnings came after tens of thousands of people took to the city's streets on April 28, in protest over the amendments.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.