HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s last British governor Chris Patten said on Thursday a proposed extradition bill allowing suspects to be sent to China for trial is a “terrible blow” to the rule of law and will undermine Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial hub.
The legal amendments being pushed by the special administrative region’s government would allow case-by-case transfers of people to countries without extradition treaties, including China.
Critics in the business, legal and diplomatic communities say the bill would effectively extend China’s coercive reach into Hong Kong and erode the rule of law.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee that under a ‘one country, two systems’ mode of governance, the city would retain a high degree of autonomy, an independent judiciary and freedoms not allowed in mainland China.
Patten, who at 75 remains a figure of some influence and has continued to speak out on Hong Kong affairs, said the bill is the worst thing to happen to the city under Chinese rule.
“It’s a proposal, or a set of proposals, which strike a terrible blow ... against the rule of law, against Hong Kong’s stability and security, against Hong Kong’s position as a great international trading hub,” Patten said in a video commentary posted online on Thursday.
The law would “remove the firewall between Hong Kong’s rule of law and the idea of law which prevails in Communist China,” Patten said.
“An idea of law where there aren’t any independent courts. Where the courts and the security services and the party’s rule which are, sometimes, pretty obscure, are rolled altogether,” he said, referring to China’s ruling Communist Party.
Despite pressure on the government to scrap the bill, including a planned protest march on Sunday that organizers hope will draw several hundred thousand people, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam insists the bill is necessary to plug legal loopholes and would help ensure public safety.
Patten called the loophole argument “absolute nonsense” and alluded to longstanding concerns about China’s legal system that would make it difficult to guarantee a fair trial.
“People have known exactly why there shouldn’t be an extradition agreement with China for years, and many of the arguments put for the government’s proposals don’t actually pass the laugh-off-your-seat test,” he said.
He pointed to the cases of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, arrested in China on spying charges shortly after Meng Wanzhou, an executive with Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei Technologies, was arrested in Canada on a U.S. warrant.
“I hope that even at this late stage the government will back off,” Patten said of the extradition bill.
“It doesn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t happen and Hong Kong should carry on as a free society under the rule of law without having to worry about this extradition,” he said.
Reporting by Jessie Pang and James Pomfret; editing by Darren Schuettler