China used to find it too humiliating to send Hong Kong extradition requests

Marching against extradition.
Marching against extradition.
Image: AP/Kin Cheung
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

History seems to have a knack for irony—even in the most obscure corners of dusty old extradition law.

Over the past several months, the Hong Kong government has been campaigning vigorously to push through a controversial and much-hated extradition law that would allow the city, for the first time in some 90 years, to extradite wanted suspects to mainland China to face charges there. A wide swathe of Hong Kong society is strongly opposed to the law, as evidenced by an estimated crowd of over one million that took to the streets in protest against it yesterday (June 9).

While the Hong Kong government has insisted that there is no pressure from Beijing on the semi-autonomous territory to enact the bill, many observers see it as the latest incursion of China into the city’s judicial and legal independence. A top Chinese official has even lobbied Hong Kong politicians and other loyalists to back the bill. Clearly, China wants to be able to recover suspects from Hong Kong—something that’s not been possible legally since it resumed sovereignty over the territory in 1997.

And yet, just a century ago, China was too ashamed to send Hong Kong extradition requests, even though it had the full legal right to do so.

Enacted in 1889, the Chinese Extradition Ordinance allowed for the surrender of Chinese subjects wanted for crimes in imperial China. The law was put in place to give effect to an article in the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin (that city is known now as Tianjin), which marked China’s humiliating loss in the Second Opium War. The article required Chinese subjects who took refuge in Hong Kong or on British ships there, and who were wanted for crimes, to be delivered to Chinese authorities upon “due requisition.”

Extraditions happened regularly for a while, but eventually, though, Chinese authorities grew reluctant to invoke the extradition ordinance. The unwillingness stemmed from a deep sense of humiliation and indignity surrounding the 1858 treaty—counted by China as one of many “unequal treaties” imposed on the country by Western powers, creating foreign concessions in its ports. China increasingly saw requesting an extradition from Hong Kong as legitimizing a legal document that it felt it had been forced to accept. And so China stopped making extradition requests, and the ordinance fell into disuse in the 1930s.

The irony now is that, against the backdrop of the ongoing trade war, China has yet again been invoking the humiliation of the 19th-century treaties that Chinese president Xi Jinping has referred to as “a very painful chapter” (link in Chinese) in the nation’s history. The implication is that any trade deal cannot be seen as bowing to US demands (paywall).

How the tide has changed with the passing of time. No longer is China embarrassed to ask for extraditions from Hong Kong. Instead, getting the extradition law passed in Hong Kong would represent a major victory—and cement its ever-firmer grip on the city.