More than 300 fugitives are evading mainland authorities by staying in Hong Kong, according to a former Chinese top security official.

Chen Zhimin told RTHK that Beijing “has the full names” of all the fugitives, but could not extradite them because it lacks a rendition agreement with Hong Kong.

Chen Zhimin. File photo: GovCN.

The city’s security chief John Lee also supports a new arrangement with the mainland, but said the Hong Kong government does not have figures related to Chinese fugitives.

On Wednesday, Chen – who was China’s deputy minister of public security between 2009 and 2017 – said mainland authorities regularly assist Hong Kong in arresting and transferring criminals back to the city. Hong Kong should update its laws so that extradition could work the other way round, he added.

Chen also revealed that he tried to negotiate an arrangement with his Hong Kong counterparts when he was in office, but “it was a pity” that no consensus was reached. Hong Kong’s former security chief Lai Tung-kwok had been involved in the talks, as well as John Lee, who – at the time – was serving as undersecretary.

Last month, the Hong Kong government proposed a case-by-case system that would allow the city to handle extradition requests from jurisdictions where there are no pre-existing agreements – most notably China and Taiwan.

Former security chief Lai Tung-kwok.

The move was spurred by the case of Poon Hiu-wing, a pregnant 20-year-old Hong Kong woman who was killed during a trip to Taiwan last February. Hong Kong authorities arrested the woman’s boyfriend Chan Tong-kai but were unable to charge him with murder in local courts. He is currently in custody on separate charges.

Two-thirds in support

Lee reiterated his support for the proposal on Wednesday, saying that it was backed by around two-thirds of the 4,500 opinions received from the public. The 20-day public consultation period ended last Monday, but was criticised as being rushed and poorly promoted.

“If some people are doing all they can to block the transfer of the suspect to face justice in Taiwan, I will feel sad and disappointed,” Lee told reporters. “Justice is justice, and should not be overridden by politics.”

He also said that Hongkongers would not be extradited to the mainland for political crimes, since the proposed system will require the suspect’s actions to be considered criminal both in Hong Kong and the mainland.

Hong Kong’s local and international business community had previously expressed doubts about the extradition plan, saying that businesses may accidentally fall foul of China’s tax laws. Some business representatives, including Felix Chung from the Liberal Party, have called for the amendment to cover only white collar crimes.

John Lee speaking on Wednesday. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Lee sought to calm the business community, saying that accidental slips without criminal intent will not constitute a crime in Hong Kong, meaning that extradition would be impossible.

On Tuesday, Taiwan’s legislature passed a non-binding motion calling for Hong Kong to establish a bilateral extradition agreement with the island, instead of an open-ended amendment that could apply to mainland China as well.

Lee said that current Hong Kong laws prohibited him from negotiating with Taiwan on the murder case, and he could only do so after the amendment passes.

His comments drew a quick rebuttal from the Civic Party’s Dennis Kwok, who pointed out that Lee was negotiating with the mainland about extradition despite not having an existing agreement.

Dennis Kwok. File Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“Why is it okay for the Hong Kong government to discuss with the mainland, but not with Taiwan?” Kwok told Apple Daily.

Taiwanese representatives have also accused Lee of keeping them in the dark, and say they have been stonewalled by the Hong Kong government thrice when they tried to make contact.

Lee took questions on the extradition proposal after attending a District Council meeting on Wednesday, and was met with a protest by political group Demosisto. The group called on him to withdraw the proposal. Lee left after receiving a letter from protesters.

Holmes Chan

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.