Hong Kong’s top officials appeared to be caught off guard after new concessions introduced to the government’s controversial extradition bill renewed questions over Taiwan’s political status.

On Thursday, Secretary for Security John Lee announced amendments designed to reassure the city’s business community and the general public following weeks of criticism. Lee said that extradition requests under the proposed bill must come from the central authorities in a jurisdiction, which – for mainland China – means the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate.

John Lee. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Lee was immediately pressed to clarify which “central authority” may represent Taiwan, a self-ruling island whose sovereignty is disputed by China.

The Hong Kong government first proposed legal amendments in February to allow the city to handle case-by-case extradition requests from jurisdictions with no prior agreements. Officials claim 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. Her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai is now serving jail time for unrelated charges, and the government said it must quickly establish a legal basis to transfer Chan to Taiwan to avoid him walking free.

On Friday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that further discussion with Taiwan is needed to clarify the details: “After listening to the public’s feedback, we adopted the international norm that [extradition] requests should be made by central authorities, instead of local ones.”

“We need to speak with Taiwan authorities to see which body would make such a request… we cannot say at the moment.”

Carrie Lam. File photo: inmediahk.net.

Lee and the justice minister Teresa Cheng appeared at the legislature on Friday and were promptly challenged on the same point.

“Does Taiwan have a central government? Shouldn’t you be treating Taiwan as a part of China?” asked pro-democracy camp convenor Claudia Mo.

Cheng replied that the legal mechanism must fall into place before deliberations with Taiwan can begin.

Mo later criticised the officials for dodging the question, while People Power lawmaker Ray Chan said that the government knew full well that the revised bill could not deal with the Taiwan murder case.

The pro-Beijing camp also seemed to be at a loss, with New People Party’s leader Regina Ip saying she “was not familiar with Taiwan’s system.” Lawmaker Paul Tse added that Taiwan’s situation is “very sensitive” and should not be “spelled out in black and white.”

Lawmaker Claudia Mo. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Taiwan’s body for handling cross-straits affairs, the Mainland Affairs Council, had already stated multiple times that it would not seek to extradite the murder suspect even if the bill was passed.

The Council’s deputy minister Chiu Chui-cheng previously said that the extradition law may harm the rights and safety of Taiwanese people in Hong Kong, adding that the Council may go as far as issuing a travel alert for the city.

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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.