Catch me if you can

Local tycoons unsettled as Hong Kong tries to change extradition rules


Exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his family have been spotted in Hong Kong from time to time. Last month, the billionaire was said to have thrown an extravagant wedding for his daughter. But he might think twice about spending time in the territory should the Hong Kong government get its way in amending its extradition laws.

The former British colony has concluded extradition deals with 20 or so mainly common-law countries in the past and a revised law on the surrender of fugitives was passed shortly before the handover back to China in 1997.

However, the government has since come to the conclusion that changes are required to “plug a legal loophole”. The revisions would allow extradition to a wider range of nations, through a case-by-case approach. In particular they would allow for the return of wanted parties to mainland China, Macau and Taiwan.

The government seems to be responding to a case in February last year, when a man from Hong Kong fled back to the city after allegedly murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan. Taiwanese police wanted Hong Kong to hand him over but the absence of an extradition agreement prevented it from happening.

The proposed legislative amendment is triggering local opposition, however, especially from anti-Beijing politicians who demand a higher degree of autonomy for the territory, which is under Chinese sovereignty. Attempts to change the rules – as far as these legislators are concerned – aren’t purely motivated by the need to address a murder case in Taiwan. The current extradition law stipulates that the legislation does not apply to “any other part of the People’s Republic of China” (aka mainland China), for instance. The new law would remove this exclusion, making the handover of suspects or fugitives a much easier task.

This raises a series of concerns for another interested group in Hong Kong: the hundreds of ‘permanent’ visitors from the mainland thought to be avoiding the attentions of Beijing’s graft inspectors.

Indeed, the Four Seasons hotel has even been dubbed the “north facing watchtower”, such is the number of ‘exiled’ businesspeople and government officials that have opted to stay there (see WiC263).

That said, it looked like less of a haven when financier Xiao Jianhua, of the Tomorrow Group, was nabbed there by Chinese agents two years ago (no legal niceties for him, it seems: see WiC354).

In less sensitive circumstances the majority of pro-establishment lawmakers would rubber-stamp the amendments on the extradition law. But this time round the electoral representatives of the influential business sector are under more pressure to say no. One major concern, the Hong Kong Economic Times has pointed out, is from local people who did business in China in the past and who may have committed wrongdoing of their own (sometimes unwittingly, but also in response to local business conditions, like meeting the demands of bribe-soliciting local officials).

Some of their pressure has paid off and nine types of commercial crime were excluded from the legislative amendment, although bribery remains on the list of relevant crimes.

That makes it rather vexing for real estate billionaire Joseph Lau, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of the changes.

The 67 year-old was jailed in absentia by a Macau court in 2014 for involvement in a bribery case and he has refused to serve his sentence. This month he filed a judicial review application at the high court opposing the amendments and asking that any change to the laws should not have a retrospective effect. Commentators say it’s an odd move because there isn’t any new legislation in place for Lau to challenge. But others also worry about how new extradition laws could see almost anyone in Hong Kong shipped to the mainland for trial on charges of alleged ‘economic crimes’.

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