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A Chinese official in Hong Kong is urging the quick passage of legal measures to allow fugitives to be transferred to the mainland – a controversial proposal that is mired in political gridlock and opposed by business groups.
The Hong Kong government has asked the city's Legislative Council to approve extraditions to countries and regions with which it has no such agreements, including mainland China.
But the plan has sparked unease and protests in the territory of 7.4 million people – a former British colony that since July 1, 1997 has been a semi-autonomous region of China with its own legal system.
Local business and law groups, the U.S. government and human rights organizations have expressed concern that the plan could erode Hong Kong's local autonomy, make it a less attractive place to do business and ensnare its residents in China's legal system. Demonstrators have taken to the streets.
But Song Ruan, deputy commissioner for the Chinese foreign ministry office in Hong Kong, sought Tuesday to offer reassurance that the city has nothing to fear, telling reporters that China "respects the jurisdiction" of the local government.
Still, he suggested patience is running out, stressing it is long past time to act as nearly 22 years have passed since Hong Kong's reversion to China and the territory has fugitive transfer facilities with a number of countries and regions.
Lawmakers in favor of and opposed to the changes have locked horns in the legislature over how to proceed. Tempers have flared with debate descending into a melee earlier this month.
The local government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has said the measures are necessary to close a legal "loophole" whereby accused fugitives cannot be sent to certain jurisdictions.
The government cites a murder allegedly committed by a Hong Kong man in Taiwan last year as the impetus for the proposed changes. He returned to Hong Kong but can't currently be extradited to Taiwan.
It says that safeguards, such as no extraditions for political offenses and veto power over any court-approved extraditions by the chief executive, will prevent abuses.
It has also said no extraditions can take place for crimes that carry the death penalty.
Still, the Hong Kong International Chamber of Commerce wrote to lawmakers on May 8 to raise concern, citing an "adverse impact on Hong Kong as a place to live and work, and to continue growing as a major international business center attracting overseas investment."
Song, the foreign ministry official, acknowledged the existence of local apprehension.
"At present we can see there is some kind of worry and fear circulating in Hong Kong society," he said.
But he attributed it to "gossip making" by opposition lawmakers who he accused of stoking "panic" over the proposal.