A panel of witnesses urged the US to put political pressure on Hong Kong authorities at a congressional committee hearing on Wednesday, citing the erosion of the city’s rule of law under its proposed amendments to extradition laws.

The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hearing on Hong Kong freedoms was chaired by Representative James McGovern. The meeting, in Washington, heard testimonies from pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan, barrister Martin Lee, former lawmaker Nathan Law and veteran journalist Mak Yin-ting.

Lee Cheuk-yan, Martin Lee, James McGovern, Mak Yin-ting, and Nathan Law
Lee Cheuk-yan, Martin Lee, James McGovern, Mak Yin-ting, and Nathan Law. Photo: Nathan Law, via Facebook.

Co-chair Senator Marco Rubio said he would reintroduce an updated Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act – which establishes punitive measures against government offices responsible for suppressing freedoms in Hong Kong – to reflect recent political developments.

“At a time when Hong Kong’s autonomy is clearly under assault, the United States should be renewing its historical commitment to Hong Kong,” Rubio said. “For this reason, I will soon be reintroducing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.”

Hong Kong proposed legal amendments in February to allow the city to handle case-by-case extradition requests from jurisdictions with no prior agreements – most notably China and Taiwan. 

During the hearing, Lee likened the bill to “sending sheep to the mouth of the tiger.” He proposed sending a congressional US delegation to Hong Kong to directly challenge Chief Executive Carrie Lam on the amendment.

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The plan would enable the chief executive and local courts to handle extradition requests without legislative oversight, though lawyers, journalists and foreign politicians have raised concerns over the risk of residents being extradited to the mainland. In April, tens of thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets in protest of the proposal as democrats have sought to hinder the bill’s progress at the legislature.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has repeatedly voiced concern over the proposed amendments, despite government concessions on nine commercial crimes, which were removed from the upcoming bill. The trading body has said the bill will undermine the city’s reputation as an international financial centre.

‘Sharp downward turn’

The CECC also heard statements from Mak, former chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, who said that press freedom in the city had declined: “Freedom of expression, and of the press, have taken a sharp downward turn in Hong Kong, with the dive particularly apparent since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012,” she said.

Mak warned that the impending extradition bill could threaten journalists’ safety and jeopardise the quality of China media coverage.

“Hong Kong can no longer be a ‘safe harbour’ for reporters covering sensitive news in mainland China because the proposed amendment allows the Chinese government to request the return of the targeted reporters,” she said. “The natural consequence [of the law] will be either a decrease in the quantity and quality of news on China—or the exodus of valuable news workers to other places where China cannot request extradition. Or both.”

nathan law
Nathan Law. Photo: Demosisto.

Hong Kong fell three places in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index last month, down 25 places in 10 years. The Paris-based watchdog cited Beijing’s sway on media independence in the city as influential in its decision.

The hearing comes on the heels of a report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission last Wednesday warning that Hong Kong’s proposed extradition law amendments could violate key provisions of the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which affords the city privileges in economic and trade matters relating to the US.

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jennifer creery

Jennifer Creery

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.