Have you heard how great this new extradition law is here in Hong Kong? That's what I'm supposed to tell you. The Chinese central government has just held a press briefing instructing reporters in the city to try "injecting positive energy" into their coverage of the law.
The law is awful. It is dangerous. And it is designed to silence or entrap China's critics. There's nothing positive about it.
But China's representative office in Hong Kong insists that it's "legal, necessary and urgent." So the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in reporters and bosses from CNN, CNBC, the Financial Times, Reuters and Japan's Kyodo News. It told them to be "fair, balanced and objective" while writing about this proposed law, and to inject that positive energy into the coverage. Which would make it not fair, balanced and objective.
The overseas business community and foreign investors are worried about this new law, and they should be. The American Chamber of Commerce has called on the Hong Kong government to withdraw the law. Chamber president Tara Joseph says pushing the bill through risks "shooting Hong Kong in the foot," with members fearing it will make the city less competitive, undermine investor confidence, and make residents feel less safe.
It is extremely easy to run afoul of China's laws. Audited financial statements from Chinese companies are considered state secrets. So are retirement dates of top officials. Actually, anything the government doesn't want you to know about is secret.
Secret or not, you can be charged with virtually anything. The members of the Communist Party in mainland China are past masters at concocting trumped up economic crimes of, say, tax evasion against their enemies.
Just ask the dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Detained in Beijing while getting on a plane to Hong Kong, he disappeared for months of solitary confinement, constant surveillance, and bullying interrogation, he says mainly about his blog. He ultimately signed what authorities said was a confession of "tax evasion" over his art - although he says he was constantly never questioned about tax.
As it now stands, someone like Ai is safe in Hong Kong, which has no extradition law with China, Macau or Taiwan. Dissidents are free to say what they want here, and publish what they want. That's in theory - several booksellers were scandalously abducted and taken for interrogation in China over books that revealed gossip about and the earnings of "secrets" about the Chinese leadership.
So the proposed rule changes are an assault on the city's legal separation from mainland China. Under the "One Country, Two Systems" agreement signed with Britain and registered before the United Nations, Hong Kong is supposed to keep its own legal system separate from China's. That gives both companies and investors confidence that the "rule of law" will hold up against trumped-up financial charges.
This move would merge the Hong Kong and Chinese legal systems. Any crime for extradition would have to be a crime in both jurisdictions. But of course, tax evasion is a crime in Hong Kong, while writing a critical blog or making controversial artwork is not.
It's not allowed in mainland China to compare Chinese President Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh. Many online commentators have made fun of their portly likeness, but those comments are immediately censored and removed. Winnie the Pooh himself has been taken off the shelves and the movie Christopher Robin was not cleared for mainland release.
It is illegal in China to give controversial names to your dogs. A dog breeder in eastern Anhui Province was arrested after he posted on the WeChat messaging app about how he had called two particularly lazy, thieving dogs "City Officer" and "Traffic Warden."
The dog breeder thought it was pretty funny. A lot of people agreed. The police did not, giving him 10 days of jail time for sharing "insulting information on law-enforcement officers" on social media.
Assaulting a police officer is, naturally, a crime in Hong Kong. Might the Chinese cops feel "assaulted" by a nasty tweet? If and when this law is passed, they could make that case here.
Hong Kong's administration is hell bent on bulldozing the extradition law through. It has decided it doesn't need to go through the normal channels of discussion by government committee, after pro-democracy lawmakers tried to delay it. The pro-Beijing administration has the numbers to railroad through the law in the end.
Only the court of public opinion seems to matter now, with thousands of people taking to the streets to protest the law. That's why Beijing is attempting to influence coverage of it. Beijing's local office also rolled out the staple criticism that it is "highly deplorable" that foreign governments and "external forces," probably thinking of less-than-menacing entities like the American Chamber of Commerce, have shared their thoughts on the matter.
The press and the courts in China do as they are told. Those in Hong Kong are, nominally, still free and impartial, albeit less and less so. The Chinese government is, behind the scenes, quietly attempting to use the courts to push its agenda here as well.
In Hong Kong, pro-democracy politicians have been kicked out of office, retroactively, for disrespecting their oaths of office, something that wasn't a crime at the time. Leaders of the Umbrella Movement pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 are now doing time after being convicted of never-used laws about "inciting public nuisance" originally intended to outlaw triad societies. Some were even convicted of incitement to incite others to cause a public nuisance.
If this extradition law goes through, it will no longer be necessary to use such archaic, 19th century laws. Basic tax evasion or accessing audited papers at Chinese accounting firms will be good enough grounds, let alone publishing short-sale advice or critical financial analysis of a state-owned company.
Investors should fear the change indeed.