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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong's financial hub status rattled by extradition bill

US says measures risk jeopardizing territory's special status

HONG KONG -- The extradition bill that sparked one of the largest protests here in two decades looks set to keep stoking political and international tensions as it touches on the city's independent judiciary, one of the core strengths that make Hong Kong one of Asia's premier financial hubs.

"If the bill passes, Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city," said a young person who participated in the demonstrations.

The bill, which would pave way for suspects detained in Hong Kong to be handed over to mainland China, has many people worried that it will give Beijing sway over Hong Kong's independent judiciary.

Beijing has cracked down hard on political activism in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which called for democratic elections to pick the territory's chief executive, fizzled out. With democratic movements making little headway, an independent judiciary is one of the few big selling points Hong Kong has left.

The U.S. on Monday expressed strong concern about the developments in Hong Kong, warning that the extradition bill could jeopardize the special status the territory enjoys.

"The continued erosion of the 'one country, two systems' framework puts at risk Hong Kong's long-established special status in international affairs," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said at a daily news briefing.

"The United States shares the concern of many in Hong Kong that the lack of procedural protection in the proposed amendments could undermine Hong Kong's autonomy and negatively impact the territory's longstanding protections of human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic values," she said.

The bill risks damaging Hong Kong's business environment "and subject our citizens residing in or visiting Hong Kong to China's capricious judicial system," Ortagus said.

Under the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, Washington treats Hong Kong as a nonsovereign entity distinct from the rest of China in matters of trade and economics. U.S. President Donald Trump's punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, for example, do not extend to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is also allowed trade in U.S. high-tech products from which mainland China has been blocked.

Some American lawmakers have urged a rethink of this policy in light of Beijing's growing influence in Hong Kong politics. Pro-democracy leader Martin Lee voiced concerns about the extradition bill in a meeting last month with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

A policy shift could have significant economic repercussions for both the U.S. and China. About 1,300 American businesses have bases in Hong Kong, and a number of Chinese state-owned companies are listed on its stock market.

"If the U.S. ends its special treatment of Hong Kong, money could stop flowing into its financial markets, potentially affecting the Chinese economy as well," said Toru Kurata, a professor of politics at Rikkyo University in Japan.

Organizers say Sunday's demonstrations drew 1.03 million people -- more than the 2003 protests against national security legislation threatening harsh punishments for "treason." Police gave a more modest attendance figure of 240,000, which would still outstrip peak attendance at the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

This unprecedented scale of the protest was due to concerns about the bill's implications among not only democratic activists opposed to the Chinese Communist Party, but also people in the business world, who are typically more sympathetic toward Beijing.

"It's rooted in distrust of China's judicial system," said Kurata.

Under the "one country, two systems" arrangement adopted under the 1997 handover of sovereignty to China from the U.K., Hong Kong maintained a British-style judicial system. This contrasts with the more opaque system of mainland China, where the Communist Party is in charge of courts and prosecutions.

Hong Kong lawmakers have altered the legislation twice to address issues raised by protesters, including removing white-collar crimes from the list of offenses that would make suspects eligible for extradition. But these changes failed to allay fears that democratic activists or people who have problems with Chinese businesses could be arrested on trumped-up charges and shipped off to the mainland.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Monday that she understands the protesters' concerns and will make an effort to better explain the legislation, but made clear that the government plans to continue moving forward with the measure. Debate on the bill will resume Wednesday with an eye toward passage within the month, she said.

The government is in no position to shelve the plan even if it wanted to. Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng, the Communist Party's point man on Hong Kong, has expressed support for the extradition bill.

Gavin Greenwood of consultancy A2 Global Risk considers it likely that Hong Kong lawmakers will pass the legislation, noting that Beijing has far more influence in Hong Kong now than during the 2003 protests.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang implied that foreign influence was at work in the protests against the bill. "We resolutely oppose the wrong words and deeds of any foreign forces that interfere" in Hong Kong legislation, he told reporters.

Ken Moriyasu in New York contributed to this report.

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