Hong Kong residents are braced for further political turmoil after the territory’s government put forward a change to the law that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China.
The proposed legislation has become a lightning rod for concerns about Beijing’s increasing control over the former British colony, which had been promised it would retain its own legal and social institutions for 50 years after its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said the Bill will be sent to the legislature on Wednesday for debate.
The legislature’s president, Andrew Leung, has scheduled a vote to take place on June 20.
Police closed off streets surrounding the legislature and government headquarters amid rising tensions.
Local media reports said thousands of additional officers are being mobilised to keep order amid calls for protesters to begin gathering on Tuesday night.
Some businesses announced plans to close on Wednesday, and there are scattered reports of students planning to boycott classes.
A protest on Sunday by hundreds of thousands of people, the semi-autonomous territory’s largest demonstration in more than a decade, reflected growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland.
Critics believe the legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China’s judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offences, and would not be guaranteed free trials.
Ms Lam, who cancelled her regular question and answer session on Wednesday, said the government has considered concerns from the private sector and altered the Bill to improve human rights safeguards.
She emphasised that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts.
Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise Hong Kong’s legal independence, long viewed as one of the main differences between the territory and mainland China.
Hong Kong Bar Association chair Philip Dykes said a lack of faith in Beijing remains a crucial issue.
He said: “The government is asking these people with decades of mistrust suddenly to trust the system and to accept assurances that the (Chinese) mainland will offer that they be honoured. And that’s clearly not persuading the people.”
Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis.
China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
The proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.
Ms Lam has said the changes are necessary for Hong Kong to uphold justice and meet its international obligations. Without them, she said Hong Kong risks becoming a “fugitive offenders’ haven”.
Supporters have pointed to the case of Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong man who admitted to Hong Kong police that he killed his girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan.
Because Hong Kong and Taiwan do not have an extradition agreement, he has not been sent to Taiwan to face charges there, though he has been jailed in Hong Kong on money laundering charges.
Under its “one country, two systems” setup, Hong Kong was guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years.
As a result, residents enjoy far greater freedoms than people on the mainland, such as the freedom to protest or publicly criticise the government.
Nevertheless, the Communist Party exerts influence on the Hong Kong government.
Hong Kong voters cannot directly elect their chief executive. Ms Lam was elected in 2017 by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites, and is widely seen as the Communist Party’s favoured candidate.
The Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, includes a sizeable camp of pro-Beijing members.