HONG KONG: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Mass rally forces back-flip on national security law
, July 26, 2003
Almost exactly six years after the British handed over control of Hong Kong to Communist China, a mass rally of 500,000 people through Hong Kong has forced the Beijing-installed Chief Executive, Tung Chee Hwa, to defer implementation of new laws which would severely restrict political freedoms in Hong Kong.
Under the terms of the British hand-over, China promised to maintain political freedom in Hong Kong, under its "one country, two systems" formula.
However, these have been eroded by a number of actions taken by the Government.
None of these compared to the proposed Article 23, which would have effectively ended the "two systems" in China, by proscribing any organisation in Hong Kong which was illegal inside China.Rule of law
The Asian Human Rights Commission said last May that the proposed Article 23 would "seriously threaten the freedoms of Hong Kong's people and the rule of law in Hong Kong."
In particular, it warned that the proposed law could make any person giving humanitarian assistance to a country at war with China guilty of "treason". Similarly, the expression of dissent from government policy could be interpreted as "subversion", that publications could be banned as "seditious", and that searches could be undertaken without a warrant.
It added, "We have chosen to set up our office here because of Hong Kong's relatively free environment and respect for the rule of law. At the same time, the free flow of information, enhanced by an efficient communication system, provides great convenience for the promotion of international cooperation and exchange among people in the region.
"These are the advantages that Hong Kong offers over other parts of Asia and that have made Hong Kong a valuable member of international society.
"We have witnessed, however, that in all countries in Asia where similar national security laws have been adopted the rule of law has suffered severely. In addition, the role of basic institutions, such as an independent judiciary, prosecution and police, have been fundamentally undermined.
"Consequently, we expect a similar pattern to unfold in Hong Kong over the course of time if this law is enacted with the resulting deterioration of the rule of law and dilution of freedoms suffocating the vitality of Hong Kong and its economy.
"There is almost nothing for the Government and people of Hong Kong to gain, but there is a great deal to lose if the National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill becomes law. Hong Kong is a unique city in which there is a high population density concentrated within a small space, which is especially evident in our high-rise buildings. This unique living arrangement is the very basis for an open society with full transparency and accountability. If severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) made any message apparent, it was this."
The Commission added, "If we want to recreate the confidence that is required to return crowds to our airports, a return of investments and even to the reopening of schools in a normal manner, we need to create the public impression that we have a type of governance that can be trusted to maintain a high standard of public scrutiny. In such a climate, legislation on Article 23 will do enormous damage to Hong Kong's public image."
Faced with massive public opposition, and widespread international criticism, Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Tung Chee Hwa, announced that the Government would defer implementation of the legislation.
Acknowledging widespread public discontent, Tung said he would scrap a provision that allows some groups to be banned, add protections for journalists who publish classified information, and delete a provision that would let police conduct searches without warrants.
However, other objectionable provisions will remain.
Some pro-democracy members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council expressed the view that Tung should step down over his handling of Article 23 legislation.
Independent legislator Albert Chan said stepping down was the only option for the Hong Kong Chief Executive, saying "Tung's inaction and incompetence can be clearly seen."
Democratic Party chairman Yeung Sum agreed, saying: "There are only two options: shelve the legislation or step down. Tung should treasure the last chance given to him."
Democrat Cheung Man-kwong added: "The public ... wants to say 'good night' to him, when he steps down. The people have been putting up with him for six years. They cannot bear it any more."
Perhaps the best-known leader of the pro-democracy movement, Martin Lee, said, "Beijing should get a very important message: We are not asking for independence, but we do want to be left alone in running our own affairs. We love our freedom."