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Britain’s colonial government was opposed to an extradition agreement between Hong Kong and China, according to declassified files publicised by research group Decoding Hong Kong’s History. The UK authorities cited Beijing as saying that its own domestic extradition laws were underdeveloped.

“One of the main fears they all have is that people returned to Hong Kong may be sent to China. We are therefore keen to discourage speculation on the matter,” former British diplomat Stephen Bradley wrote in a letter dated July 7, 1992. He added that any such talks could damage existing or agreements under negotiation with other partners owing to the “sensitivity of any public discussion” on the topic of further extradition from Hong Kong to China.

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File photo: HKFP.

The declassified files also showed that, in 1992, then-advisor to Beijing Maria Tam had visited the Guangdong Public Security Bureau, in which both parties carried out informal rendition agreement talks for after the 1997 Handover. The note, signed RAJ Bunten, cited an upsurge of “violent” cross-border crime in the 1990s as a possible basis for such an agreement.

Additionally, the documents showed that Beijing regarded its own extradition laws to be “inchoate,” and that agreements between itself and Britain regarding post-Handover Hong Kong should be limited to civil and commercial cooperation, as criminal issues would be “too difficult” to deal with.

In 1988, Lord Winchelsea and then British member of parliament Nicholas Winterton raised the issue of introducing safeguards to prevent the onward transfer of fugitive offenders from Hong Kong to China with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Maria Tam
Maria Tam. File Photo:

Last month, the Hong Kong government proposed updating the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance to roll out a case-by-case system. The new system would allow the city to handle extradition requests from jurisdictions where there were no pre-existing deals – most notably from China and Taiwan.

But Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the amendment is intended to plug a legal loophole: “The existing framework to deal with fugitive offenders – there is indeed a loophole,” she said at a regular Q&A on Tuesday. “In some cases, it is impossible to surrender a fugitive offender, so by proposing the amendment we would like to plug the loophole, to fill the gap, so that Hong Kong won’t become a haven for fugitive offenders.”

As of today, China does not have an extradition agreement with the United Kingdom, nor the United States and Canada. However, Beijing maintains such treaties with 40 nations, including France – in 2016, the European country handed over Chen Wenhua, who was wanted as an “economic fugitive” associated with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sweeping antigraft campaign.

Meanwhile, a bilateral extradition treaty between Australia and China stymied in 2017 owing to growing concerns over the latter’s alleged abuse of the rule of law.

‘Underdeveloped’ law

Amon Yiu, a researcher from Decoding Hong Kong’s History, told HKFP that the documents show that Beijing considered its own laws to be too rudimentary to enter into an extradition agreement with Hong Kong: “The HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] government has attempted to persuade Hongkongers that an offender’s right to a trial will be protected in China. However, in the declassified files, we have found that even China admitted in 1988 that its legal system was ‘inchoate,’ in other words, underdeveloped, and agreed not to raise the issue of criminal extradition,” he said via email.

“In the past few decades, we cannot see any significant progress having been made. Instead, there are televised confessions on Chinese state TV, detention of rights lawyers and activists in the 709 roundups, and closed-door trials,” Yiu added. “Needless to say, China has not yet ratified the ICCPR to guarantee the people’s right to trial. Without a sound legal system and sound protection of rights, the Government should drop the proposed extradition law amendment.”

Hong Kong currently has mutual extradition agreements with 20 jurisdictions, including the US, UK and Australia.

Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive. 

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.