As published on scmp.com, Thursday 20 August, 2020.
The US State Department halted its extradition treaty with Hong Kong on Wednesday, in the latest sign of deteriorating US-China relations in the weeks since Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong.
The treaty was one of three US bilateral agreements with Hong Kong that the Trump administration announced it was suspending.
“These agreements covered the surrender of fugitive offenders, the transfer of sentenced persons, and reciprocal tax exemptions on income derived from the international operation of ships,” said Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman.
The State Department said the move was pursuant to President Donald Trump’s July 14 executive order, which declared that Hong Kong was “no longer sufficiently autonomous to justify differential treatment in relation to the People's Republic of China” because of the national security law.
“These steps underscore our deep concern regarding Beijing’s decision to impose the national security law, which has crushed the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong,” Ortagus said.
Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, France and Britain have also suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong in recent weeks.
The State Department announcement also comes less than two weeks after the Trump administration issued economic sanctions on Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, along with 10 other current and former Chinese officials.
The sanctions, which were also tied to the national security law, are designed to cut Lam and the other officials out of the US financial system.
The national security law allows for people accused of certain crimes to be prosecuted in mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
The crimes, which are not defined clearly in the law, are described as “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorist activities” and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”.
Beijing says the law can apply to anyone, anywhere in the world.
A few weeks after it was imposed, Hong Kong authorities issued an arrest warrant – citing the national security law – for an American citizen, Samuel Chu.
“Since the first report of the arrest warrants against me under the national security law, I have received repeated and unequivocal assurance from US officials that they deem the charges and warrants as outlandish, illegal and unenforceable,” said Chu, the managing director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), a non-profit advocacy group in Washington.
“This latest development continues to isolate the regime in China and its puppet government in Hong Kong on the global stage – it illustrates the rapid erosion of international trust and confidence in Hong Kong’s judicial independence and will surely lead to further withdrawal from US and international institutions and corporations.”
The issue of extradition was at the centre of Hong Kong’s mass protest movement throughout much of 2019 and 2020, after a draft bill in the city’s legislature that would have allowed criminal extraditions to mainland China. The extradition plan sparked widespread fear in Hong Kong that the city’s independent judiciary would be trumped by Beijing’s party-run legal system.
The bill was ultimately suspended under immense public pressure in October, but many people were startled when Beijing revealed that the new national security law allowed for extradition to the mainland.
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, called the State Department’s suspension of the three agreements a “needed response to protect all Hong Kong Americans and others who have spoken out on Hong Kong” – especially in light of the arrest warrant issued for Chu.
Hui added that the suspension of the tax exemption treaty might put a different sort of pressure on Beijing in response to the national security law.
“Beijing has long reaped financial and economic benefits from Hong Kong while dismantling its freedom,” she said.
“Suspension of the agreement regarding reciprocal tax exemptions on income derived from the international operation of ships and other actions that undercut Beijing’s profits from Hong Kong may hopefully slow down the continued erosion of the city's freedom.”
The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Washington did not respond to a query about how the city’s government would respond to the extradition treaty’s suspension.
At a White House news conference on Wednesday, Trump did not directly address the State Department’s actions, but commented that the US was no longer going to “subsidise” Hong Kong with “incentives”.
“I’ve taken it all back,” he said.
“We really gave them tremendous incentive and subsidy, in order that they’d be successful, for freedom,” he said. “But now that the freedom obviously seems to have been taken away, we will keep all of the incentives that we were giving them, which is billions and billions of dollars.”
Trump did not clarify what he was referring to when speaking about “incentives”, but the remark was nearly identical to what he had said last Thursday, when he predicted that Hong Kong’s markets would “go to hell” with the city under Chinese control.