Q&A | How a woman’s death got tangled in Taiwan, Hong Kong politics

Q&A: How a woman's death got tangled in Hong Kong politics
Chan Tong-kai, center, talks to the media as he is released from prison in Hong Kong Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Chan, who's wanted for killing his girlfriend last year on the self-ruled island, had asked the Hong Kong government for help turning himself in to Taiwan after his sentence for money laundering offenses ends on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

TAIPEI (AP) — Around Valentine’s Day last year, the decomposing body of a pregnant Hong Kong woman, 21-year-old Poon Hiu-wing, turned up in the tall grass near a riverside spot in a suburban area of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.

Her boyfriend, also from Hong Kong, was the prime suspect in her slaying but escaped to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory before Taiwanese police could take him into custody.

The murder case was cited by Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, as justification for amendments to the city’s extradition laws, a move that many said would make suspects vulnerable to being sent to mainland China, where they could face torture and unfair trials. The massive anti-government protests set off by the legislation in June have grown increasingly violent.

The release of the suspect Wednesday after serving a sentence for a separate offense and the legal tussle between Hong Kong and Taipei over his fate underscore deep political divisions between Taiwan’s freewheeling democracy and independent judiciary and China’s tightly controlled, authoritarian one-party system.

Taiwan’s China-skeptical government initially said no Sunday when it learned that the suspect, 20-year-old Chan Tong-kai, was willing to fly back to face a trial. Days later, the Taiwanese government’s Mainland Affairs Council said it would take Chan if Taiwanese police and prosecutors could enter Hong Kong first to be escorts on Chan’s flight. Hong Kong has denied that request, and Chan appears to be a free man.

Some questions and answers related to the case:

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WHY CAN’T CHAN JUST FLY BACK?

Hong Kong is part of China, which doesn’t recognize Taiwan as independent. Agreements signed during warmer relations didn’t include extradition, and China stopped talks in 2016 because Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen disputes China’s condition that she acknowledge Taiwan as part of a single China.

Hong Kong’s citizens must get entry permits from Taiwan’s immigration agency. But the chaperone who was proposed for Chan, the Rev. Peter Koon Ho-ming, isn’t eligible for a permit because he’s also a delegate to the Chinese government’s legislative advisory body.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council wanted to appoint an escort to prevent possible escape and destruction of evidence. It also questioned whether Chan really wanted to return.

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DOES TAIWAN WANT HIM TO RETURN FOR TRIAL?

Taiwan has a presidential election in January. Tsai sees the Chan case as a “hot potato” that could turn some voters against her if it is handled in a way that makes Taiwan look like part of China, said Liu Yih-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. More than 80 percent of Taiwanese oppose Beijing’s goal of unifying Taiwan and China, government surveys found in January and March.

Letting Taiwanese authorities escort the suspect back over would imply more judicial autonomy for Taipei. Distance from China would “give Tsai Ing-wen a safe ticket back to the presidential hall,” Liu said.

The victim and suspect were not Taiwanese, and the case never became a sensation among locals. However, most Taiwanese hope their own prosecutors can try all cases involving criminal suspects from overseas, said Chao Chien-min, dean of social sciences at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. The Mainland Affairs Council said it has also asked, to no avail, that Hong Kong turn over Chan’s reported confession and records of interviews.

“The incident took place in Taiwan. Of course, we advocate legal jurisdiction,” Tsai told a social media group Tuesday. “I hope the Hong Kong government will take responsibility and provide necessary help in letting legal departments get sufficient evidence, finish confirming legal liability and return justice to the victims among Hong Kong’s people.”

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WHY DID THE CASE GET SO POLITICAL FOR EVERYONE?

To accept the suspect without a Taipei-appointed escort would imply Hong Kong needs no extradition law when it comes to Taiwan, suggesting that both belong to China. Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party supports Taiwanese self-rule and Tsai has spoken in favor of the millions in Hong Kong who protested the extradition bill that was formally withdrawn Wednesday.

“The government wants to use politics to interpret this legal case,” said Chinese Culture University’s Chao. “It’s an election strategy. The government hopes Hong Kong will be chaotic forever and make Taiwanese people think the chaos will land here.”

To let Taiwan send its own official escort would suggest to Hong Kong that it never needed an extradition bill. That could further undermine Lam’s administration by implying its entire justification for the legislation that sparked the protest movement was flawed from the start.

The escort would “show there is a way around the extradition bill,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.

It would further “give Taiwan some extraterritorial jurisdiction in Hong Kong, which Beijing will not want to give, and it makes Taiwan appear as an equal judicial entity with Hong Kong, which Beijing will not tolerate,” Sun said.