Hong Kong has stood alone for 25 years atop the Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom. The index scores 180 economies around the world in 12 categories of economic freedom related to the rule of law, regulatory efficiency, government size and the openness of markets. It averages those scores to get an overall economic freedom score on a 100-point scale. Hong Kong’s lead over perennial second-place finisher Singapore has been as wide as 4 points, but in recent years Hong Kong’s lead has dwindled to less than a point.
The territory’s ranking is at risk if the Hong Kong Legislative Council enacts a proposed new extradition law. Judicial effectiveness—a broad category that includes judicial independence, the quality of the judicial process, and favoritism—is already a weak link in Hong Kong’s otherwise strong tradition of economic freedom. Its score of 75.3 for judicial effectiveness trails other free Asian economies by anywhere from 8 to 17 points. Singapore scored 92.4 in that category this year.
The bill would allow for the arrest and transfer of Hong Kong residents and foreign visitors to mainland China, with only the paltriest procedural safeguards. That’s a problem for businesspeople, journalists and political dissidents. It is the most pressing threat to the city’s independence and status as an international commercial center since its handover from Britain to China in 1997. Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, describes the measure as “a mockery of the rule of law.”
Without the strong and impartial rule of law, Hong Kong will lose its unique advantages as an financial capital. Lots of other cities in Asia have favorable investment and tax policies and can offer protection from arbitrary arrest or extradition.
The security of investment and investors is another area in which Hong Kong’s economic freedom could suffer because of the proposed law. If the international businesses and financial institutions based in Hong Kong begin to doubt the security of their executives and employees, many of them would likely leave—and understandably so. That in turn could cripple the city’s economy and deprive China of its unique financial bridge to the West.
Hong Kong has exemplified economic and individual freedom in Asia for decades. It’s still learning the habits of democracy, but the island’s political culture is fully capable of openly debating questions about the relationship between citizens and the government. This proposed extradition law would fundamentally change that relationship—and so deserves ample deliberation.
And yet, puzzlingly, the Legislative Council is rushing the bill. If the authorities move forward as planned, finalizing the new law by July or even earlier, they will have overturned decades of precedent with only cursory legislative consideration and scant opportunity for opposing views to be heard. Opposition to the proposal is real. In April, more than 100,000 residents turned out to protest it. Perhaps the government should pay a little more attention to Hong Kongers—and a little less to Beijing.
This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal