HONG KONG -- Pressure is growing on the Hong Kong government to drop proposed legislation that would allow criminal suspects in the territory to be extradited to mainland China.
Business leaders, lawmakers and foreign chambers of commerce are voicing concerns over the controversial legal change, warning it could damage Hong Kong's reputation as a business hub and prompt overseas companies to leave the city.
A similar motion was shelved 20 years ago because of lawmaker concerns that suspects would not get a fair trial on the mainland. And with business chiefs -- who typically back government proposals -- weighing in, the prospects for the law passing after upcoming legislative debates are becoming uncertain.
The territory's security bureau last month proposed to amend a law that prevents the transfer of fugitives from Hong Kong to the mainland, Taiwan or Macao. The change would allow case-by-case consideration of extradition requests from the three jurisdictions.
The proposal came after a Hong Kong citizen was accused of killing his girlfriend in Taipei last year. The suspect could not be sent to Taiwan for trial because of the lack of an extradition arrangement. The government in Hong Kong said it is seeking to "plug the loophole."
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong last week expressed "grave concerns" for international businesses over China's legal and judicial system.
In a statement addressed to John Lee, the city's security secretary, the chamber said there were "deep flaws" in the mainland criminal process, citing its lack of an independent judiciary, arbitrary detention, fair public trials, access to legal representation, and poor prison conditions.
The body said the proposed change to existing extradition terms would "undermine the perceptions of Hong Kong as a safe and secure haven for international business operations," and urged the government to reconsider the proposal.
The proposal could open the door for mainland authorities to request a suspect's arrest when he or she surfaces in Hong Kong. Executives from countries and companies involved in disputes with the Chinese authorities could become more vulnerable than others.
"There would be certain businesses leaving Hong Kong, especially foreign ones," James Tien, honorary chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, told a radio program last week.
The politician was a member of the committee that drafted the territory's equivalent of a constitution, the Basic Law. He said they "debated thoroughly" on the extradition arrangements in the 1980s, and deliberately did not include mainland China.
"We have capitalism, and they have socialism," he said. "How do we make sure our property does not get confiscated, or we don't get extradited for crimes they think offensive on the mainland?"
David Webb, an activist investor who often criticizes mainland companies listed in Hong Kong, told the Nikkei Asian Review the proposed law would deter executives from coming to Hong Kong and companies from setting up regional headquarters in the city.
"It is a bad thing," Webb said, adding that the arrangement would hurt investor interests by discouraging analysts from giving honest views about mainland companies. He added that the clauses of some commercial laws can be "vague" and could be abused to extradite fugitives.
Peter Lam, a Hong Kong billionaire and member of China's top political advisory body, flagged the potential damage to Hong Kong's business environment and competitiveness once the law amendment is passed, according to the South China Morning Post.
Lam, who will take over as chairman of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in June, urged the government to exclude commercial crimes caused by unintentional administrative errors from the proposal. He said he had also expressed these concerns to Beijing.
However, legal experts say that setting up extradition arrangements will be unavoidable as integration deepens between Hong Kong and the mainland.
"With increasing interactions between two sides under the Greater Bay Area initiative, the extradition plan can't be postponed indefinitely," Hong Kong University law professor Fu Hualing said.
Fu said the lack of an extradition arrangement would result in similar legal dilemmas as seen in the Taiwan case, where justice fails to prevail, or result in extreme actions such as cross-border law enforcement.
Hong Kong bookseller Lee Po, who is also a U.K. citizen, vanished from the city in 2015 before surfacing later on the mainland without going through proper immigration channels. He was detained there for three months. The British government suggested that the Chinese agents were behind his disappearance.
Lam Wing-kee, another Hong Kong bookseller, who was detained on the mainland for eight months after being arrested in Shenzhen, told Nikkei he would leave Hong Kong and seek asylum elsewhere if the law is passed.
While the Hong Kong government says that political charges would be excluded from extradition arrangements, Lam said "it is not uncommon for Beijing to fabricate charges in order to prosecute someone."
Outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, for example, was detained for "economic crimes" in 2011, and Cheng Yizhong, the former editor-in-chief of a Chinese newspaper was also arrested on the same charge in 2008.
Hong Kong's security bureau told Nikkei that the purpose of the legislative amendment was to deal with the murder case in Taiwan. Commercial activities caused by omissions or unintentional errors do not constitute crimes in Hong Kong, and the people in question will not be extradited to the mainland, it said.
"The security bureau is collecting comments from businesses and other sectors," the bureau said. "We will carefully deal with them, and hand the draft over to legislative council for review as soon as possible."