A top Chinese official has thrown his weight behind the controversial extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government, calling it “necessary, appropriate, lawful and reasonable.”

Zhang Xiaoming, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, discussed the bill on Wednesday with a delegation from local think tank Path of Democracy.

“The key to resolving the present debate… is to uphold justice and rule of law; secondly to be rational and professional; thirdly to respect facts and the ‘One Country’ under ‘One Country, Two Systems,’” Zhang said, according to a press release by his office.

ronny tong zhang xiaoming
Ronny Tong and Zhang Xiaoming. Photo: GovCN.

Executive Councillor and Path of Democracy convenor Ronny Tong said that, during the meeting, Zhang expressed respect for Hong Kong’s legal system and said the bill needed to be better explained to the public. There were no discussions about possible concessions from the government, Tong added.

The proposed legal amendments will allow the city to handle case-by-case extradition requests from jurisdictions with no prior agreements – most notably China and Taiwan. Pro-democracy lawmakers have sought to delay the bill’s legislative process, as lawyers, journalists, foreign politicians and businesses have raised concerns over the risk of residents being extradited to the mainland.

Earlier in the week, Beijing’s office in Hong Kong also discussed the bill at a leadership meeting hosted by its director Wang Zhimin.

“Amending the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance can strengthen the relationship between the jurisdictions, and is a rightful duty in implementing the Basic Law,” the China Liaison Office said. “It is an important move to protect Hong Kong’s core value of rule of law, and to improve the city’s good reputation on rule of law.”

Wang Zhimin
Wang Zhimin. Photo: LegCo.

The office also urged the public to reject “rumours and trumped-up fears” about the bill, and to have faith in the city’s courts, the government and the progress made in mainland China.

Top barristers ‘dismayed’

On Wednesday, the current chairman of Hong Kong’s Bar Association Philip Dykes and 11 of his predecessors co-signed a statement expressing “dismay” at the government’s attempt to rush the bill through the legislature.

The statement took aim at recent arguments advanced by top officials such as the Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng and Secretary for Security John Lee. The duo previously argued that Hong Kong courts would be able to act as “gatekeepers,” but the barristers disagreed.

“The oft-repeated assertion that the judges will be gatekeepers is misleading. It is not, and never has been the function of the courts… to consider the legal system and procedure of the foreign jurisdiction,” the statement read.

The barristers also said the government was wrong to dismiss alternative proposals, including a suggestion to extend the jurisdiction of local courts.

Philip Dykes
Hong Kong Bar Association Chairman Philip Dykes. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

The new law, if implemented, will “circumvent the traditional safeguard” that extradition will only be available for jurisdictions deemed to be compatible with Hong Kong, the statement read. This meant residents can potentially be extradited to jurisdictions where their rights may not be protected to an internationally accepted standard.

The rare joint statement included signatories such as Martin Lee, Gladys Li, Audrey Eu, Alan Leong and Paul Shieh. Missing from the list were barristers Winnie Tam, Paul Lam, Ronny Tong, former justice chief Rimsky Yuen and retired judge Henry Litton.

Negotiations at LegCo 

With the bill in paralysis at the legislature, opposing lawmakers have floated the possibility of negotiating among themselves, after Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said that the executive branch will not interfere in the legislature’s internal procedures.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Martin Liao said that the representatives from the four main parties in his camp had discussed the matter among themselves on Wednesday, and they were prepared to meet the democrats on Thursday morning at the earliest.

Martin Liao
Pro-Beijing camp convener Martin Liao. Photo: Citizen News.

Both political camps have been trying to lead the bill meetings owing to a split over the legitimacy of the chairperson. Last Saturday’s committee session descended into a physical ruck as the rival camps tussled over control of the microphone, whilst Tuesday’s effort to restart the meeting also failed.

Lawmaker Claudia Mo, who convenes the pro-democracy camp, said that democrats will not budge from the position that James To was the legitimate head of the bills committee.

Nevertheless, she said it was possible to “wipe the slate clean” if there can be a new consensus candidate for the role of chairperson: “The bills committee can still be presided over by James To, and we can elect the chairperson again… can we consider a candidate that the pro-democracy camp can also accept?”

In the meantime, the Security Bureau issued a lengthy reply to questions raised by the legislature’s legal advisor. The questions, which were submitted on April 30, were cited approvingly by democrats who had expressed similar doubts.

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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.