Hong Kong: Extradition suspect freed but protests still likely

Chan Tong-kai was accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend, leading to an extradition bill causing Hong Kong crisis.

    Hong Kong has been engulfed in anti-government protests triggered by the controversial extradition bill [File: Mohd Rasfan/AFP]
    Hong Kong has been engulfed in anti-government protests triggered by the controversial extradition bill [File: Mohd Rasfan/AFP]

    Hong Kong, China - A murder suspect who would have been extradited under a now-quashed bill that sparked this Chinese territory's mass protests became a free man on Wednesday, but he promised to surrender himself to Taiwan police.

    Chan Tong-kai had been accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and fleeing to Hong Kong. The case prompted officials in Hong Kong to draw up the bill that would see alleged criminals sent to mainland China for prosecution. 


    Officials formally have now withdrawn the extradition bill that plunged Hong Kong into four months of often violent demonstrations. 

    So, does Chan's release spell the end of the political maelstrom in this semi-autonomous Chinese city? Not so fast.

    "This will have minimal impact on the protesters," said Ma Ngok, associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who speacialises in Hong Kong politics. "On the contrary this might even embolden them as it's clear to them the other side is softening its stance."

    Since early June, Hong Kong has been engulfed in anti-government protests triggered by the bill, which officials insisted was the only way to ensure Chan faced justice, but also would have allowed the extradition of accused individuals to mainland China for trial under a judicial system with little guarantee of rights.

    Public anger has been fuelled by the government's refusal to address protesters' demands, which include an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality in suppressing the demonstrations, amnesty for the 500 people charged with offences linked to the protests, and a retraction of police claims that demonstrators are guilty of rioting.

    Can Hong Kong's Chief Executive hold onto her job?

    Lam to resign?

    Protesters have also been agitating for full democracy to elect the legislature and chief executive.

    There will not be elections any time soon, but Beijing has plans to replace Chief Executive Carrie Lam in March, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday.

    China quickly denied it was planning to replace Hong Kong's beleaguered leader.

    If protesters greet the news with a shrug - as evident from the dearth of discussion on their favourite online agora LIHKG.com - that's because it is deja vu.

    Hong Kong has been there before. In 2005, the city's first chief executive under Chinese rule Tung Chee-Hwa resigned 16 months after he pushed for a national security legislation promulgated by Beijing and drove half a million protesters to the street.

    "No matter who her replacement is going to be, it matters more if this person is going to address the demands," said Ma. "Except for elections, all other demands are within the powers of the next chief executive."

    Protesters have been pinning their hope on the Hong Kong Human Rights & Democracy Act, a US bill that calls for elections for the full legislature by 2020 with no mention of chief executive, which is chosen by a 1,200-member committee of mostly pro-Beijing loyalists.

    Until she was tipped by Beijing to run in March 2017, Lam, a career civil servant of nearly four decades and then the city's number two official, had planned to retire. Her more popular opponent was an American-bred finance minister who once served as an aide to the last colonial governor - a candidate who would never win Beijing's nod for the top job.

    'Right step'

    If Lam steps down by March, her successor would fill the balance of her five-year term till June 2022.

    "This is not what the people ultimately want, but this will be a right step towards a solution. Otherwise there's no way out," long-time political commentator Ching Cheong told Al Jazeera. "At least this shows Lam will be held accountable for the mess."

    Even though none of Lam's predecessors has served a full second term, Ching said "there'll always be willing candidates, if Beijing gives its blessings".

    But he said he believed China's central government would stay away from appointing any divisive figure.

    Meanwhile, the murder case that triggered the beginnings of Lam's undoing will promise more diplomatic headaches across the Taiwan Strait.

    On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government rejected Taiwanese officials' offer to escort Chan to the island nation for investigation.

    Days before Chan's release, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen refused his offer to fly himself to Taipei to surrender, saying he is a wanted criminal who should be handled by judiciary authorities.

    Even now this is more than a legal case, as politics is very much at play, as Ming-Sung Kuo, a law professor at the University of Warwick, said.

    "Tsai's supporters believe that if she accepts the surrender, she'll be giving a helping hand to Carrie Lam, and that would weaken the protest movement."

    Yet, public pressure is mounting for Tsai to bring Chan to justice. The consensus across the political spectrum is that asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction is one of the few ways Taiwan can exercise sovereignty under the One China principle.

    But with few countries willing to enter into extradition agreement, that space is ever narrowing.

    "'One China' not only creates practical difficulties but also raises concerns about the rule of law for Taiwan," said Kuo.

    What do protesters in Hong Kong want now?

    Inside Story

    What do protesters in Hong Kong want now?

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera