One murder, two storms

Domestic News

A murder case was cited by the Hong Kong government for the extradition bill that sparked paralyzing protests over the past half year. But now the case has taken on a life of its own, becoming a major issue in the upcoming January 2020 elections in Taiwan. How might this end?

When Chan Tong-kai murdered his 5-week pregnant girlfriend at a hotel near Taipei, stuffed her body into a suitcase and dumped it into the grassland by a train station, he was probably only thinking about how to avoid legal consequences. No one, especially not this Hong Kong resident with no previous public profile, could have anticipated the unprecedented political chain reaction that this murder case would trigger. Chan’s case has gone from being cited by the Hong Kong government for the extradition bill that led to paralyzing protests, to now becoming a major issue in the upcoming January 2020 elections in Taiwan.

To fully grasp the political ramifications of the case, it is necessary to first review its evolution. In February 2018, 19-year old Chan Tong-kai and his 20-year old girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing, both Hong Kong residents, went to Taiwan for Valentine’s day. Over their stay, Chan killed Poon over an argument and disposed of her body. Upon returning to Hong Kong, he was questioned by the police for using Poon’s credit card and then confessed to the murder, which led Taiwanese police to discover her body. However, because Hong Kong’s criminal code does not cover crimes that took place outside of Hong Kong territory, Hong Kong could not try Chan for murder. Instead, he was prosecuted on money laundering charges and was sentenced to 29 months in prison. Chan’s sentence was subsequently reduced given that this was his first criminal offense and that he admitted to his crimes, and he was released on October 23, 2019.

Upon discovering the body, Taiwanese prosecutors issued a 37.5 year-long warrant for Chan’s arrest. Taiwan reached out to Hong Kong multiple times to have Chan returned to Taiwan to face a murder trial. However, because there was no formal legal assistance channel between the two jurisdictions, Hong Kong could not extradite Chan. This prompted Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration to draft an extradition bill that would allow the government to transfer fugitives to Macau, Taiwan, and mainland China. Unknowingly to Lam at the time, the bill would ignite the massive protests in Hong Kong over long-term social grievances and the region’s future prospects. The ongoing political storm has already affected Hong Kong’s economy, shaken its status as a stable global financial hub and inserted itself into broader Sino-U.S. disputes.

For months, the storm in Hong Kong has benefited Taiwan’s incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen (Cài Yīngwén 蔡英文), who faces reelection in January 2020. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has traditionally called for formal Taiwanese independence while the opposing Kuomintang (Nationalist Party, or KMT) has favored closer cross-strait relations with mainland China. Han Kuo-yu (韩国瑜 Hán Guóyú), the KMT’s candidate and the mayor of Kaohsiung, met with Carrie Lam this March when he visited Hong Kong and mainland China to promote Kaohsiung’s agricultural products. The DPP has accused Han of being “pro-China and betraying Taiwan” (亲中卖台 qīn zhōng mài tái), and the escalating storm in Hong Kong had further solidified the attack. Although the DPP suffered from large-scale defeats in the November 2018 local elections and from high-profile political scandals, protests in Hong Kong gave Tsai a boost thanks to her explicit rejection of the “one country, two systems” framework proposed by Beijing. Tsai’s vocal support to Hong Kong protestors portrayed her as a steadfast protector against an encroaching Beijing while she attacked Han’s alleged closeness to Carrie Lam and mainland China. Indeed, media has described Tsai as “picking up a gun” (捡到枪 jiǎn dào qiāng) that compensated for her lackluster performance in the election battle. Tsai has enjoyed a double-digit lead over Han in conducted polls.

However, a recent twist in the murder case threatens the DPP’s advantage. Persuaded by the prominent Anglican Reverend Canon Peter Douglas Koon, Chan had stated his willingness to surrender himself to Taiwanese authority to repent for his crime as long as he does not receive death penalty. Reverend Koon even booked a plane ticket to Taiwan for Chan on October 23, although Chan missed the flight due to the timing of his actual release.

One would think that Taiwan would readily take Chan into custody, yet the reactions of Tsai’s administration were counterintuitive. Su Tseng-chang (Sū Zhēnchāng 苏贞昌), the number two official in Tsai’s administration, suspected political manipulation. He accused Carrie Lam and Beijing of legitimizing the extradition bill by directing Chan to Taiwan while ignoring Taiwan’s previous requests to establish a formal channel. He further questioned why Chan would abandon his “good days” in Hong Kong. Taiwan, emphasized Su, must not fall into the “‘One China’ trap”. Hsu Kuo-yung (Xú Guóyǒng 徐国勇), the official in Tsai’s administration in charge of interior affairs, questioned why the Hong Kong government would not give trial to a Hong Kong resident for murdering another one. In addition, Tsai’s administration pointed out that Reverend Koon is a member of Beijing’s municipal People’s Political Consultative Conference and has issued restrictions to prohibit him and Chan from entering Taiwan. This created the puzzling situation in which a fugitive wanted by Taiwanese authorities is denied entry.  

The response of Tsai’s administration created a backlash. Han Kuo-yu and other KMT leaders accused Tsai of abandoning Taiwan’s jurisdiction and forgoing the pursuit of justice for political purposes. Even Chen Shui-bian, the ex-DPP Taiwan leader, said that the case should not involve political considerations. Tsai’s position became more untenable after the media reported that Hsu Kuo-yung had in fact met with Reverend Koon in Taiwan in late September, suggesting that her administration was aware of Chan’s intention earlier than initially thought. Perceiving the negative reactions, Tsai changed her stance. Tsai claimed that Taiwan will pursue the case if Hong Kong refuses to do so, that Chan will be “arrested at once” upon entering and that there’s “no such issue as surrendering himself.” Taiwan has offered to send police officers to Hong Kong to escort Chan but was rebuked by Hong Kong over the lack of extra-territorial jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Reverend Koon has stated that he and Chan will postpone the surrender until after the election to avoid Chan being used as a political leverage.

There is obvious political benefit for Tsai if Chan remains in Hong Kong: it will keep the situation in Hong Kong and the role of Beijing at the core of discourse in the election. By contrast, if Chan turns himself in at this moment, it could turn media attention in Taiwan inward and away from Hong Kong. However, the DPP’s overt attempts to politicize the case have backfired: they have generated considerable controversies and have invited more scrutiny than if the case were to simply be left to the Taiwanese judicial departments. Indeed, Su’s continuing defiance, including describing KMT figures who support Chan’s surrender as “demons,” at one point risked triggering a KMT-organized motion of no confidence in Taiwan’s legislature to impeach him.

Upon examination, Tsai’s administration’s arguments are not convincing. For starters, it is unclear how Taiwan would fall into the “‘One China’ trap” by accepting Chan. Without the extradition bill, Hong Kong could not send fugitives to other parts of the People’s Republic of China, so the fact that Chan can go to Taiwan seems to work in Taiwan’s favor. But even if Reverend Koon “conspired” with the Hong Kong government and Beijing to make Chan’s surrender proposal, as some have alleged, there is still no judicial reason why Taiwan would not accept a wanted fugitive. Taiwan, after all, is the location of the crime and possesses the physical evidence. Moreover, Taiwan had previously exchanged fugitives with other regions, including mainland China, without formal legal agreements. It is also unclear why such agreements, which imply the need of official assistance, are a prerequisite given that Chan wants to come to Taiwan voluntarily.

Secondly, by all legal definitions Chan became a free individual on October 23. Therefore, the Hong Kong government has no authority to arrest him and turn him in to Taiwan. This makes Taiwan’s request to send police officers to Hong Kong even more ludicrous, for if the reverse were to happen Tsai will surely decry the infringement of Taiwan’s jurisdiction and political autonomy.

While Han Kuo-yu has witnessed an increase in his support rate, it is unclear if Han and the KMT have “picked up a gun” to reverse the prospects of the upcoming election. Nevertheless, the reputation of the Tsai administration has been damaged to some extent. Tsai, Su, and Hsu, all with law degrees, kept on insisting that either Hong Kong should handle the case or that formal channels must be established first. Yet Taiwan clearly has a superior jurisdictional claim while a formal channel can take at least months to establish when Chan already walks free. Additionally, Tsai’s administration put politics above judicial independence: Taiwan’s judicial organs took a back seat in the dispute while Tsai gave explicit statement disqualifying Chan’s planned surrender, a judgment that is typically reserved for the court.

The back-and-forth was criticized as a “flipflop” (发夹弯 fā jiā wān) in Taiwan even though Tsai claimed that her administration’s stance has been (somehow) consistent. The most recent reaction from Taiwanese authority (specifically, the Mainland Affairs Council, MAC) is that Taiwanese police has established a special “surrender window” with the Hong Kong police and will accept Chan’s surrender at any time. The MAC stated that the entire case now depends on Chan’s “sincerity” in turning himself in. An interesting side note, however, is that Su Tseng-chang recently emphasized that Taiwan will carry out those death sentences that have been long delayed. This is intriguing given the DPP’s close relationship with Taiwanese death penalty abolishment groups. Critics interpreted this as a (not so) subtle deterrence against Chan, reminding him that Taiwan still has death penalties. This likely reduces the prospects for Chan surrendering himself before the election, if he still plans to stay to his course at all.

Uncertainties surround Chan going forward. He might still voluntarily go to Taiwan after the election, but it is also plausible that he changes his mind in the meantime and chooses to remain a free individual in Hong Kong rather than receiving capital punishment in Taiwan. However, at this point with the extradition bill officially withdrawn in Hong Kong, and Taiwan’s 2020 election fast approaching, it appears that the future of Chan’s case may depend most on Taiwan.