Trade war a hidden factor in fugitive saga

Editorial | Mary Ma 17 May 2019

Escalation in Beijing's rhetoric over public opposition to proposed changes to Hong Kong's extradition law doesn't occur by accident. It's closely related to the intensification of the Sino-US trade war.

A lot has happened in the past few days. The pan-democrats and pro-establishment lawmakers finally met each other. It's no surprise the meeting broke down almost as soon as it began, with both sides accusing each other of being insincere. And Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office boss Zhang Xiaoming just met executive councilor Ronny Tong Ka-wah.

The opposition's olive branch was a tactic to delay passage of the controversial bill as long as possible.

What's exceptional during the period was the high profile Beijing officials and state propaganda organs have displayed in defending the bill. Wang Zhimin, Beijing's top representative in the SAR, is to meet loyalists - including dissenting business lawmakers - today, when he will marshal them to fall into line.

The vigor with which foreign governments have criticized the bill is unprecedented, even though there had been instances of criticism on other policies in the past.

Beijing was clearly restrained in responding to criticisms of the extradition law amendment when trade talks with US President Donald Trump were still on track toward a possible deal. To some extent, its low profile reflected Beijing's priority not to endanger the negotiations, as an escalation in rhetoric over the bill might set off sensitive issues at the wrong time.

Now that the talks have effectively collapsed, the battlefield is cleared for Beijing's propaganda machine to shift to high gear. As China played up nationalistic attacks on Uncle Sam's "imperial" trade war, Hong Kong inevitably becomes collateral damage.

The line that the extradition law needs to be changed in order to send a wanted murder suspect to Taiwan is only a smokescreen.

It's plausible foreign governments in the West would come under domestic pressure to review their extradition or other bilateral arrangements with Hong Kong, as Beijing's pressure mounts for the SAR to pass the bill swiftly.

If that happens, the city will have much to lose in the end.

Criticisms the mainland judicial system is backward and doesn't live up to human rights expectations aren't incorrect, but they jar with nationalistic pride. It's highly predictable that at today's meeting, Wang will strongarm the handful of business-sector lawmakers who are still opposed to the amendment.

There's a thoroughfare for the government to take the bill directly to the second reading stage. That it hasn't yet resorted to this option isn't because it doesn't want to do so - although it knows this would dig a rat's hole in the legislative system that constitutes an important part of the separation of powers - but because the administration is uncertain it would have enough votes to ensure risk-free passage.

If the holdout business-sector lawmakers are persuaded to fall into line and commit to supporting the bill after today's meeting, it wouldn't surprise me in the least the government would circumvent the bills committee to airlift the bill directly to the full Legislative Council for a speedy second reading.

Swift third reading passage would then be guaranteed.

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