The murder that changed the world

How a crime of passion in Taipei led to the crackdown by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong

November 2021

In 2018, Amber Poon Hiu-wing (潘曉穎)* and her boyfriend of eight months, Tony Chan Tong-kai (陳同佳), left Hong Kong for a Valentine’s Day holiday in Taipei. Both were 19 years old and Poon was three months pregnant.

On the night of 16th February Chan strangled her following an argument in which she revealed that the father of her baby was a former boyfriend.

The next morning Chan threw away most of Poon’s belongings and left the hotel with her body inside a suitcase. He took the Taipei Metro to a station north of the city and dumped her in the mangrove bushes beside a river. He then threw the suitcase away and went to the airport.

Several weeks later Poon’s father flew to Taipei searching for his daughter. When the hotel showed him security camera footage of Mr Chan moving a very heavy suitcase along a corridor, he contacted the Taiwan police and her body was found.

Chan was detained in Hong Kong and during cross examination admitted to the murder.

The Hong Kong police could not charge him however, because the crime had been committed outside their jurisdiction.

Instead, they kept Mr Chan in custody and charged him with fraudulently using Ms Poon’s credit card several times after her death. Following a six month prison sentence he was released under police protection at the end of 2019.

Why no trial for murder?

Why was he not sent back to Taiwan to face trial for murder?

The answer to this question is where the problem lies. It explains why Chan’s case led to huge demonstrations in Hong Kong, which ignited the democracy movement, and then led to radical political reforms being imposed by Beijing, the consequences of which still reverberate around the world three years later.

Since 1997, Hong Kong has been a special administrative region (SAR) of China. This arrangement allowed Hong Kong to retain an elected government and maintain it’s own legal system, both legacies from when Hong Kong was a British colony.

After the discovery of Poon’s body, the Taiwanese police issued an arrest warrant for Chan and requested cooperation from the Hong Kong police. They did not get a response. So the request was raised to government levels.

The problem was that there was no extradition treaty between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nor was there one between Hong Kong and mainland China.

In Hong Kong, the absence of an extradition treaty with China was viewed as a critical line of defence by many people. Hong Kongers felt that they could say what they liked, and newspapers could even publish articles strongly critical of China, safe in the knowledge that they could not be held accountable outside Hong Kong. They could not be extradited to China. Although several Hong Kong booksellers had been smuggled into China for selling books banned on the mainland, most people felt relatively secure – because of the lack of any extradition treaty with China.

Then came the case of Mr Chan

For Mr Chan to be extradited from Hong Kong to Taiwan required a treaty. (Mr Chan’s offer to fly to Taiwan himself and stand trial was rejected.)

For Hong Kong and Taiwan to sign an extradition treaty was complicated by the fact that Beijing sees Taiwan as part of its territory. A treaty between Hong Kong and Taipei could be viewed by Beijing as a treaty with China. For Taiwan, which sees itself as independent state, that was impossible.

For the people of Hong Kong an extradition treaty with Taiwan was also unacceptable. They feared it would, in effect, create an extradition treaty with the mainland. That would greatly undermine their separate legal system, and the “one country two systems” principle.

Despite this, Hong Kong’s government tried to fast-track a new extradition law.

This led to demonstrations in Hong Kong, because people were worried that they could be sent to China if they did or said anything Beijing did not like.

That added fuel to an already well-established democracy movement and led to an extended period of civil disobedience. Then came tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as demands for electoral reform. After several months, the Hong Kong government withdrew the proposed extradition bill.

In response to such a large public rebellion, China then decided to impose sweeping political and legal changes on Hong Kong. It banned many elected pro-democracy representatives from office, told civil servants to sign an oath of allegiance, forced schools to become more patriotic, closed a prominent newspaper and detained hundreds of people. Their trials are still ongoing, as are the reforms.

In the meantime, Mr Chan remains free, Taiwan’s justice system is frustrated, and Amber Poon’s family is distraught by the lack of action over their daughter’s murder.

Attempts to arrange for Mr Chan’s transfer to Taipei are also now complicated by Covid-19, as both Taiwan and Hong Kong have very strict border controls.

Mr Chan’s police protection ended last month and he is reportedly living remotely, somewhere in Hong Kong.

Fate dealt two people and the world an odd hand that night in December 2017, when Amber Poon and a former boyfriend slept together, and she became pregnant.

Who would have guessed that their rekindled relationship would bring such enormous consequences for so many millions of people?

* Why do we include the characters? There’s a reason.

Suitcase image: Sun Lingyan

No China Extradition: Joseph Chan

City view: Hui-Chun Chen