Top executives in Hong Kong have warned they will have “no reason to stay” if the territory’s freedoms are damaged by a proposed bill allowing extradition to mainland China.
In a trend that could be damning for the international finance hub, some businesses say they would consider moving if the controversial bill — which has provoked a huge backlash in the city — is passed.
“Hong Kong is a jewel where we do not fear being bothered by police,” the French boss of an investment company told reporters on condition of anonymity.
However, that could be about to change, with the proposed extradition law applying not only to Hong Kong citizens, but also to foreigners living in the semi-autonomous territory — or even people in transit at the international airport.
Hong Kong’s “real strength comes from the application of the law, from the rule of law,” the businessman said.
“You do not go to prison for no reason. No one will close your business without reason and without you being able to defend yourself in court,” he said.
The territory, which operates under a “one country, two systems” model where Hong Kong keeps freedom of speech and assembly rights unseen on the mainland, flourished at the end of the 20th century as a global financial center and a gateway to its giant neighbor.
However, Beijing is extending ever more control over the city, chipping away at its semi-autonomous status.
With its sky-high rents and tiny living spaces, Hong Kong has long been under pressure from its regional rival Singapore for the title of Asia’s business capital.
However, “the credibility of Hong Kong is now on the line,” especially given the acrimonious trade war with Beijing, American Chamber of Commerce president Tara Joseph told CNBC.
Washington has warned that the law could “damage Hong Kong’s business environment and subject our citizens residing in or visiting Hong Kong to China’s capricious judicial system.”
The EU also expressed concerns that the law could have “potentially far-reaching consequences for Hong Kong and its people, for EU and foreign citizens, as well as for business confidence in Hong Kong.”
Many have in mind China’s detention of two Canadians in the wake of the arrest in Vancouver of a top official from the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies Co (華為).
The disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers who published salacious material on China’s leaders, and who later turned up in Chinese custody, has also not been forgotten. One of them, former Causeway Bay Books manager Lam Wing-kei (林榮基), is in Taiwan, having fled Hong Kong.
Faced with pushback from business interests, including from pro-Beijing lawmakers who fear the effect of the law on the city’s appeal, the Hong Kong government introduced a series of safeguards and removed a series of economic crimes from the original list of extraditable offenses.
It was not enough to quell fears. Bankers and accountants are afraid of being sued for complicity in fraud committed by their clients in a country where “penalties for financial fraud are severe,” Victor Wai, a banker and retired accountant, told the South China Morning Post.
According to the French businessman, the law will particularly ring alarm bells for big multinationals — especially US companies — and companies working in sensitive fields like armaments or IT.