Britain’s role doesn’t end with recognizing the rights our own nationals should have enjoyed all along. The U.K. is intrinsically tied to Hong Kong through the rule of law, and it shares reputational risk with the judges on the island.
Overseas nonpermanent judges have sat for decades on the Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong’s supreme court. They are drawn from other common-law jurisdictions—Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand—and provide the guarantee that Hong Kong justice is up to international standards and not subject to the whims of the Communist dictatorship next door.
On the mainland, justice is not equal. Like the members of the old European aristocracies, members of the Communist Party can be tried only by their peers, not by the ordinary courts. Widespread accusations of corruption and poor governance mean few have confidence the Chinese judiciary is independent. That’s bad for individual rights, but also bad for business. Hong Kong is different. The rule of law underwrites the city’s prosperity and gives confidence to traders and investors around the world. It is no exaggeration to say that Hong Kong’s judicial system has ensured the island’s prosperity. That’s why the new extradition law matters so much.
Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s chief executive, says the draft bill on extradition is intended to help prevent criminals from using the territory to hide. But extradition is about more than preventing crime; it is a recognition that another legal system is fair. In China, that’s just not true. China’s execution of hundreds of prisoners and its use of arbitrary detention and mass incarceration to control political activity across its empire stands in stark contrast to the actions of the still-bewigged judges in Hong Kong.
The city-state is not just an offshore Shanghai. It’s a haven of legal confidence in a region that struggles with corruption, and whose wealth is constrained by the grasp of oligarchs—including the so-called red princes in China.
China’s use of the law as a means of control, not justice, puts it in direct opposition to the principles of the common law. The extradition bill would extend the remit of that system to Hong Kong, making British judges complicit. The risk to the reputation of the British legal system, and other legal systems, is clear. This is not just about Hong Kong anymore; it’s about us.
But the implications are much wider. Many investors have seen their returns multiply as they used one of Asia’s pivotal nodes to generate Asian and global trade. Hong Kong judges created that confidence through the rule of law, acceptance of standards, and a respect for the international norms.
Now China is trying to use that same justice system to underwrite its mercantilist expansion through its Belt and Road Initiative. Declaring Hong Kong justice unjust would directly threaten Beijing’s new imperial dream. It would also weaken investors’ confidence in the region’s markets, potentially undermining the prosperity of millions. That’s why returning their rights is not just good for Hong Kongers; it’s good for everyone.