China Politics

How murder, kidnappings and miscalculation set off Hong Kong's revolt

Key Points
  • While on a trip to Taiwan, a Hong Kong man strangled his Hong Kong girlfriend, then returned home and confessed.
  • The city lacked an extradition pact with Taiwan, and leader Carrie Lam argued the only way to send him back for trial was new laws that also would enable sending criminal suspects to mainland China.
  • As protests raged this summer, even in private Lam kept to her story that she, not Beijing, was the prime mover, driven by "compassion" for the young victim's devastated parents, but a Reuters examination has found a far more complicated story.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, speaks during a news conference in July 2019 in Hong Kong, China.
Anthony Kwan | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam says the plan that ignited the revolt in her city was born of a straightforward quest for justice.

While on a trip to Taiwan, a Hong Kong man strangled his Hong Kong girlfriend, then returned home and confessed. The city lacked an extradition pact with Taiwan, and Lam argued the only way to send him back for trial was new laws that also would enable sending criminal suspects to mainland China. She dismissed fears about the proposal – which would mean Hong Kong residents could face trial in China's Communist Party-controlled courts – and pushed ahead.

As protests raged this summer, even in private Lam kept to her story that she, not Beijing, was the prime mover, driven by "compassion" for the young victim's devastated parents. "This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government," she told a room of Hong Kong businesspeople at a talk in August.

A Reuters examination has found a far more complicated story. Officials in Beijing first began pushing for an extradition law two decades ago. This pressure to extend the arm of Chinese law into Hong Kong's independent British-style legal system intensified in 2017, a year before the slaying and two years before Lam's administration announced its extradition bill. The impetus came from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party's powerful internal anti-corruption body, which has been spearheading Chinese President Xi Jinping's mass anti-graft campaign.

Xi's crackdown spilled over dramatically into the streets of Hong Kong in the early hours of January 27, 2017. Among the targets of CCDI investigators at the time, two mainland Chinese officials with knowledge of the probe told Reuters, was a Chinese billionaire living in the city named Xiao Jianhua. A businessman with close ties to China's political elite, Xiao was abducted that morning from his serviced apartment at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel. Unidentified captors whisked him out the entrance in a wheelchair with his head covered, a witness told Reuters.

The sensational kidnapping, widely reported at the time, was assumed by most people in this city of 7.5 million to have been the work of Chinese agents; Beijing has never commented publicly on the matter. Frustrated at the lack of legal means to get their hands on Xiao, the two Chinese officials told Reuters, the CCDI that same year began pressing mainland officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs about the urgent need for an extradition arrangement. The CCDI wanted a less politically damaging method than kidnapping for snaring fugitive mainlanders in Hong Kong, the officials said.

The two sides failed to strike a deal, but the killing in Taiwan would provide a new opening.

What is Hong Kong's relationship with China?
What is Hong Kong's relationship with China?

Pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong championed the calls for justice of the victim's grieving parents, arranged an emotional news conference for them and pushed Lam's administration to find a way to extradite the killer. One of China's top officials for Hong Kong affairs pressed a senior Lam adviser in a private meeting in Beijing on the need to pass the proposal. Early in the crisis, when Lam privately proposed withdrawing the bill to quell the protests, senior Chinese officials rejected the move, only to relent months later as public fury mounted.

The extradition law would have been a boost to Chinese interests, a senior mainland official told Reuters, by eliminating the need to resort to kidnappings or other controversial extrajudicial acts in Hong Kong. The move would have helped us "avoid such problems," he said.

This account of how the extradition bill was launched, promoted and ultimately unravelled is based on more than 50 interviews with mainland officials, current and former Hong Kong government officials, members of Lam's cabinet, associates and friends of the Hong Kong leader from her days as a student activist, and current and former lawmakers and police officers. Reuters also drew on the public record of debates and correspondence regarding the bill in the city's legislature, the Legislative Council.

One finding that emerges is how out of touch the mainland leadership and the people it has hand-picked to run Hong Kong were with public sentiment. When China reclaimed Hong Kong from British rule in 1997, it guaranteed under a "one-country, two-systems" formula that the city would keep its treasured freedoms for 50 years. In effect, the promise postponed a decision on how an authoritarian one-party state would absorb a liberty-loving capitalist city. After two decades of determined grassroots political work by Beijing to win hearts and minds, some of the bill's leading supporters admit they were stunned by the hostility of so many Hong Kong citizens to Chinese rule.

"I was shocked to discover that in fact a very large proportion of us, people in Hong Kong, do not really feel at all comfortable with one-country, two-systems," said Ronny Tong, a member of Lam's top advisory body, the Executive Council, in an interview with Reuters. "How do you deal with this lack of confidence if not outright hatred about Beijing? How do you deal with it?"

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam leaves the chamber as she is heckled by pro-democracy lawmakers at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on October 16, 2019.
Anthony Wallace | AFP | Getty Images

In a written statement to Reuters, Lam's office said the bill "was initiated, introduced and taken forward" by her administration. The central government in Beijing "understood" why the bill had to be introduced, the statement said, and "respected the view of the Chief Executive" and "supported her all the way."

Chinese government authorities did not respond to questions for this article.

The 'mystery' of Carrie Lam

The city's revolt has dealt a major setback to Xi Jinping, coming as he contends with a damaging trade war with the United States. And in a blow to China's dreams of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland, the crisis appears to have boosted the popularity of Taiwan's independence leaning President, Tsai Ing-wen, who faces the polls in January.

For Carrie Lam, 62 years old, the miscalculation has been crushing.

Her failure to grasp the public's suspicion of the mainland's legal system has shattered a reputation for competence built up over a 39-year career in public service. In the past she was sometimes referred to by admirers as Hong Kong's Iron Lady, for a resolute manner reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's. Now, some say a combination of her willfulness and her decades at the top levels of Hong Kong's insular public service blinded her to the political danger of the extradition bill.

"The one mystery, the one puzzle is, how is it possible that Carrie Lam didn't see the implications of such a proposal?" said Margaret Ng, a barrister who was a longtime lawmaker in the pro-democracy camp.

Born into a working class family, Lam grew up in a small apartment in the suburb of Wan Chai on Hong Kong island. Like many of the city's government elite, she is a Catholic, educated in the city's Catholic schools, and she remains devout. At St. Francis' Canossian School and then St. Francis' Canossian College, she was a star student.

She was a democrat. Just like me. After government, things changed.
Lee Wing-tat
former Hong Kong lawmaker

In a 2013 radio interview, she revealed a glimpse of a fierce competitive streak. Lam told her interviewer of an enduring memory of her school days: The single occasion she failed to finish at the top of her class in a big exam. She said she cried.

When she began studying at the University of Hong Kong, Lam intended to be a social worker. Lee Wing-tat, a former lawmaker from the pro-democracy camp, was a fellow student. He recalls Lam was an activist in those days, taking part in protests. A citation when she was awarded an honorary degree in 2013 described how Lam had campaigned for better treatment for poor Chinese fishing families from the British colonial government.

She was intensely interested in welfare for the underprivileged, Lee said. And she was already a talented organizer. "You give her a job and she will deliver results," he said.

In 1979, as post-Maoist China was opening up, students from Hong Kong were invited to send a delegation to Beijing to visit elite universities, Lee said. The Democracy Wall movement was in full swing there, with big posters calling for political and social reform appearing on a long brick wall. The Hong Kong students wanted to meet prominent liberals and soak up the atmosphere, Lee said. Lam was involved in negotiating the visit with the tough Communist bureaucrats at Xinhua News Agency, then Beijing's unofficial mission in the British colony.

"They made it very difficult for her," Lee recalls. "They didn't want us to meet them." The visit went ahead, and a highlight was a banquet Lam attended where a leading liberal journalist was a guest.

"At that time, Carrie was not so conservative," Lee said. "She was a democrat. Just like me. After government, things changed."

Lam abandoned plans to become a social worker and joined the colonial Hong Kong government in 1980 as an administrative officer, the elite cadre of officials who are given broad exposure to different government roles as preparation for promotion to more senior posts.

In the Hong Kong civil service, well paid administrative officers have traditionally enjoyed considerable power and prestige in a political system without the scrutiny public servants receive in a full democracy. Lam rose fast and embraced challenging roles. Her critics say she also became arrogant and dismissive of advice from peers and subordinates.

"She has never been known to be a team player," says retired civil servant Anson Chan, who served as Hong Kong's deputy leader before and after the handover. "That has a lot to do with her character and was also instrumental in her spectacular downfall."

Lam's office declined to respond to "speculations or third parties' comments" about her.

Worrying that 'apathy has set in' in Hong Kong: Anson Chan
Worrying that 'apathy has set in' in Hong Kong: Anson Chan

Others paint a different picture. Veteran social activist Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organization, said he began working closely with Lam in the 1980s, when she led successful efforts to reunite Hong Kong families with mainland relatives. "She is a caring person," he said. "From the beginning until today."

Ho said he helped persuade Lam to become deputy to the city's former leader, Leung Chun-ying, in 2012. She had planned to retire to spend more time with her mathematician husband and two sons, Ho said, but agreed to take the post because she felt she could continue to serve the city.

Hong Kong had been under mainland rule for 15 years. Xi Jinping was about to assume power. And Beijing was about to begin flexing its muscle more forcefully.

In the final months of British rule, Hong Kong had passed laws barring the extradition of suspects to the mainland as an added protection to the freedoms promised under the one-country, two-systems formula. Beijing began making demands to reverse these provisions almost immediately after the handover, according to the Hong Kong government officials involved in talks about the issue. They say their mainland counterparts regarded it as an affront that the newly recovered territory would allow extradition to some foreign countries – even to America and Britain — but not to the motherland.

The discussions went nowhere, and on Leung and Lam's watch, China began taking matters into its own hands.

A billionaire vanishes

One of the first major extralegal arrests to gain public attention was the disappearance in 2015 of five booksellers of local publisher Mighty Current.

The publisher specialized in muckraking books on the private lives and business dealings of China's top leadership, including Xi himself. It later emerged that two of the men had been kidnapped – one in Hong Kong, one from Thailand – and taken to the mainland. A third later detailed how he was grabbed by Chinese agents while visiting southern China and held captive for eight months. He fled to Taiwan this April as Lam's government sought to ram through the extradition bill.

Abducted bookseller speaks out, defying China
Abducted bookseller speaks out, defying China

Hong Kong leaders knew about these extralegal detentions but were unwilling to publicly call out mainland authorities over them. Lam herself was closely informed about one case.

In 2013, a Hong Kong resident, Pan Weixi, and his wife were grabbed off the street in the city and smuggled to the mainland by speedboat. The family wrote to Lam describing the abduction in detail and appealing for her help in obtaining the businessman's release, according to people with knowledge of the case. Hong Kong police confirmed to Reuters that they sent officers to Guangdong who helped secure the wife's freedom and escorted her home. The family later learned that Pan was sentenced to 16 years in jail in Guangdong Province. A Hong Kong police investigation into the case remains open.

After the bookseller abductions sparked an outcry, Hong Kong officials revealed in May 2016 they were in discussions with Beijing over formal extradition procedures. The talks failed, according to lawyers involved, because Beijing was unwilling to accept human-rights and legal safeguards.

Then, in early 2017, came the brazen abduction of Xiao, the billionaire who was a target of the powerful anti-graft agency CCDI. A Hong Kong government official said Xiao had crossed the border with the mainland. The city was scandalized.

Missing Chinese billionaire?
Missing Chinese billionaire?

These controversies didn't impede Lam's rise. As Leung's deputy, she was closely involved in the government's handling of the Umbrella Movement, a 79-day campaign of civil disobedience in 2014 in which protesters demanding full democracy occupied major thoroughfares. The movement got its name from demonstrators' use of umbrellas to ward off police. Lam made conciliatory gestures, meeting protesters for talks, but that failed to produce a breakthrough. Police eventually cleared the protesters, and some key leaders were later prosecuted.

In March 2017, Lam was handpicked as China's candidate to succeed Leung and easily won election by a committee of about 1,200 mostly pro-Beijing figures. She won plaudits in China for pushing through some unpopular policies. Within weeks of taking office in July 2017, her administration announced a controversial plan to let mainland officials stationed inside a Hong Kong train terminus enforce Chinese laws on travelers passing through.

Critics said this and other moves further eroded the city's autonomy. Lam's office rejected the criticism, saying the terminus arrangement made for more convenient travel.

Xi later praised Lam for her courage in taking on "difficult challenges," after the two met in Beijing in December 2018, state media reported.

The killing in Taiwan came in February 2018. The two young Hong Kongers – Poon Hiu-wing and her boyfriend, Chan Tong-kai – quarrelled while on a trip to Taipei. Furious, Chan bashed Poon's head against a wall and strangled her, packed her body in a suitcase and later left it at a park in the Taiwanese capital, according to a Hong Kong court judgment. Chan was arrested in March after returning to Hong Kong and confessed. He was convicted and jailed for crimes committed after his return, including using Poon's ATM card to withdraw money. But because the slaying took place in Taipei, he would need to be sent to Taiwan to be tried for the killing.

Chan's lawyer didn't respond to questions for this article.

Lam later told a news conference that since the killing, her government had been spending "quite a bit of time" devising extradition proposals. In the meantime, Beijing's political allies in the city started agitating for change.

The initial moves were low-key and attracted little attention. On May 4 last year, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, Priscilla Leung, called on the city's Legislative Council to consider discussing judicial cooperation with Taiwan and "other places," according to the minutes of a panel session in the council. Leung, a law professor, chairs a legislative panel on judicial affairs. She had no comment.

Within days, Leung's proposal got a push from two lawmakers with strong links to Beijing. Starry Lee and Holden Chow went further in a letter to Leung, calling on the government to begin moves to conclude an extradition agreement with Taiwan "as soon as possible," council records show. Lee heads the city's biggest political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which hews closely to Beijing's official line. Chow is a vice chairman and the party's highest-profile young leader.

'This will destroy Hong Kong'

The next month, one of Lam's top lieutenants dropped a clue that changing the law on extradition was under consideration.

In answer to a written question from Starry Lee about the efforts to return the killer to Taipei, Secretary for Security John Lee said Hong Kong was studying how to handle the case. And he reminded her that under the law, the city was barred from sending suspects to any region of the People's Republic of China. Hong Kong shares Beijing's view that Taiwan is part of the PRC. Taiwan vehemently disagrees.

Lee, 62, was a 33-year veteran of the Hong Kong police. He joined the government's Security Bureau, which oversees the police and other law enforcement units, as deputy head in 2012 and was promoted to lead the bureau when Lam took office. Cops who served with him describe Lee as a shrewd and incorruptible crime fighter who was trusted with sensitive investigations before and after the handover. As security chief, Lee is responsible for liaison with the mainland's powerful law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Poon's family was begging for justice. Their pleas reached Lam. The chief executive said she was moved and promised to help. Lam later gave a tearful television interview to local broadcaster TVB in which she said Poon's heartbroken father had been persistent, writing five letters to the government seeking justice for his daughter.

"That's why I told John Lee that you can't just write a letter back to them and only say, 'Sorry, Mr. Poon, there isn't a legal basis for this, sorry'," Lam said. "I said you must find a way, and not let any possibility go."

Poon's father declined to comment.

Starry Lee and Holden Chow continued rallying support for the Poon family and for changing the extradition law. In mid-February, they appeared at a press conference with the mother.

"Even though it's been a year since my daughter was murdered, my husband and I can't accept this reality," Poon's mother, Kui Yin-fun, said, sobbing. "I always think of this cold-blooded and cruel scene. How the murderer dragged a suitcase, and moved the corpse, and then left it in the open, so that wild dogs could eat it."

The only way to help her daughter now, Kui told the media crowd, was justice: extradite the killer. Then Holden Chow and Starry Lee took questions. Asked whether amending the law was the sole way to deal with the case, Starry Lee said: "In principle, without this amendment of the legislation, this cannot be done."

Asked about his championing of the bill, Chow told Reuters the plan was introduced "to deal with the Taiwan murder case and to provide the victim's family justice." Unfortunately, he added, the Lam administration was unable to explain the human-rights protections contained in the bill and persuade the public to embrace it. Starry Lee didn't respond to a request for comment.

There was broad support for the Poon family in Hong Kong. But that didn't translate into support for extradition to the mainland.

That same week, a Legislative Council agenda included an item on judicial cooperation with Taiwan and "other places." The next day, the government showed its hand, revealing in an official briefing note that to resolve the Poon case, it was proposing amendments that would remove the ban on extraditions to other parts of China. The ban, it said, had created "loopholes," allowing the city to become a haven for criminals.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok was outraged. The next day, he confronted security chief John Lee in a meeting room at the Legislative Council.

"I told him don't do this," Kwok told Reuters. "I told him it is a crazy idea. I lost my cool with him. I said this will destroy Hong Kong. Don't do it!"

Lee ploughed ahead, telling reporters in March that the restrictions on extradition to other parts of China were a "chain that has been put on my feet."

Lawmakers want to 'force' extradition bill through: Hong Kong Bar Association
Lawmakers want to 'force' extradition bill through: Hong Kong Bar Association

Chinese leaders publicly began throwing their weight behind the effort. In March, Chen Zhimin, a former vice minister of public security, linked the bill to Xi's crackdown. He told Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK a pact was needed because there were more than 300 fugitives on China's wanted list hiding in the city. Chen also revealed that before he left his post in 2017, mainland officials had been discussing an extradition pact with their Hong Kong counterparts – including John Lee.

In a statement to Reuters, Lee said it was "totally unfounded and erroneous" to suggest that the mainland and pro-Beijing parties were the driving force behind the bill. The alleged abductions of billionaire Xiao and others were irrelevant, he said: The trigger was the Poon killing, which exposed gaps in the law. The central government, he added, respected Lam's views and "supported her all the way."

By May, higher officials – including a member of the Party's top decision-making body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee – were publicly backing Lam's bill. Chinese leaders were also mobilizing support behind the scenes.

One was Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the body that coordinates Beijing's policy for the city. In May, Ronny Tong, the influential Lam adviser and top barrister, led a delegation of his political allies to the Chinese capital. In a 90-minute meeting, Zhang explained the importance of the extradition bill to China and Hong Kong, according to two delegation members. Zhang took a "hardline" position, they said, telling the visitors it was urgent that Hong Kong pass the measures.

Chinese authorities didn't respond to questions about the roles of Zhang, Chen and other top leaders.

Outside of Lam's circle, alarm was spreading through Hong Kong. Even the normally pro-Beijing business community was unnerved by the bill. People began coming out to protest by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then tens of thousands and more. On June 9, the government was shaken when an estimated one million people took to the streets in a peaceful protest. Demonstrations later turned violent.

On June 11, lawmakers were preparing for a second reading of the bill, scheduled for the next day. Pro-Beijing lawmakers had the numbers if the bill came to a vote. That day, protesters began surrounding the Legislative Council building in an effort to block the session.

Violent protests broke out in Hong Kong — Here's what happened
Violent protests broke out in Hong Kong — Here's what happened

With the demonstration snowballing, the Hong Kong liaison office, China's official representative body in the city, had unwelcome news to report that night. According to two Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter, the office informed the CCDI in Beijing that the encircling protesters made it impossible to hold the debate the following morning. The CCDI suggested that lawmakers be assembled at another venue to vote, the officials said.

The protest had effectively shut down the legislature, however, preventing the second reading. Soon after, Lam crossed into the mainland and paid a call at Bauhinia Villa, a resort in the suburbs of Shenzhen where the Chinese leadership had set up a secret command center to manage the crisis.

There, Lam met with one of China's highest leaders – Vice Premier Han Zheng, the Politburo Standing Committee member who had earlier signaled support for the bill. As Reuters reported last month, she proposed suspending the legislation. After consulting with other leaders in Beijing, Han agreed.

On June 15, Lam announced she was freezing the bill. The protesters, unmollified, insisted on a total scrapping. On July 1, a crowd smashed its way into the Legislative Council and ransacked the building.

The pressure began telling on the city leader once lauded by Xi for her steeliness. In August, at times choking up, Lam told a private meeting of businesspeople that she would quit if allowed to do so.

"Hong Kong has been turned upside down, and my life has been turned upside down," she said, according to an audio tape obtained by Reuters. The bill was "very much prompted by our compassion" for the Poon family, "and this has proven to be very unwise." It turned out, she said, that there was "this huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-a-vis the mainland of China, which we were not sensitive enough to feel and grasp."

In late August, Reuters revealed that officials in Beijing had rejected a proposal from Lam to scrap the bill altogether earlier in the summer and defuse the crisis.

On September 3, Lam declared the bill would be formally withdrawn. But the protests continued as the movement morphed into a broad pursuit of democratic rights.

Chan Tong-kai was released after serving 19 months in prison in Hong Kong. On October 18, five days before walking free, he revealed there was no need for an extradition deal in his case. In a letter to Lam, Chan said he was volunteering to return to Taipei to face justice. He remains free in Hong Kong while Lam and Taiwan wrangle over the details.

Hong Kong murder suspect says he will surrender to Taiwan
Hong Kong murder suspect says he will surrender to Taiwan