September 25, 2002
Major Business News

Thirteen years ago, the people of Hong Kong turned out on the streets, donated funds and sent tents and other equipment to aid the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. After the Beijing regime brutally suppressed this peaceful movement on June 4, 1989, it sought revenge for Hong Kong's role by inserting tough new measures into the Basic Law, the constitution for the post-handover territory. China made sure the residents of its new "special administrative region" would never be allowed to do anything so "subversive" again, even if that meant breaking promises that their civil liberties would be protected for 50 years.

Yesterday Beijing's hand-picked leader of Hong Kong, Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa, not only carried out the letter of the Basic Law, he went the extra mile to curtail freedom of speech and association. His government unveiled proposals for new laws that will give it the power to ban local organizations if they have links to any groups which have been outlawed by China on the grounds of national security. In other words, if popular dissatisfaction with corruption in China ever boils over into fresh street protests, Beijing can simply brand the organizers as a threat to national security and so pave the way for Hong Kong to follow suit, preventing any rerun of the territory's support for the 1989 protests.

Predictably enough, Secretary for Security Regina Ip insists that is not what would necessarily happen. Under the proposed new law, she can only outlaw a group on these grounds after formally determining it is "affiliated" with a banned body in China and engaged in activities that pose a real threat to national security. But anyone who has watched Mr. Tung bend over backwards to placate Beijing over the last five years, even at the price of undermining Hong Kong's autonomy, can be in little doubt that these determinations would take at most a matter of days, if not minutes, once China has made its desire clear.

Nor was it reassuring to hear Mrs. Ip argue there's no cause for alarm, since in its 53 years of existence the People's Republic of China has never yet banned a group on the grounds of national security. Apparently only two obscure laws cover the issue -- known as the Interim Regulations for Registration and Administration of Social Organizations and the Interim Regulations for Registration and Administration of Private Non-Enterprise Organizations. With a wealth of repressive measures at its disposal, Beijing has so far preferred to use other methods. The Falun Gong, for instance, was banned on the grounds that it is supposedly an [Jiang regime's slanderous words omitted].

But the Hong Kong government has no choice but to frame its inroads into civil liberties in terms of national security, as that is one of the few permitted exceptions to the international human rights covenants by which it still claims to abide. And no doubt in time, Beijing will follow suit, once the new law allows it to indirectly suppress dissent in Hong Kong, simply by claiming a threat to national security.

It is now clear why Hong Kong denied entry to Harry Wu earlier this year. Along with fellow human rights activists like Han Dongfang and Frank Lu who already reside in the territory, he has precisely the sort of contacts with banned groups fighting for freedom in China which might run afoul of the new laws. Until now, there has been a place for such people in Hong Kong as part of the territory's historical role as a window on China. Now that is about to change. According to Mrs. Ip, it is Hong Kong's closeness with the rest of China that justifies laws protecting national security.

To be fair, there are parts of the proposed legislation that could have been far worse. Evidently aware it would have been a public relations disaster to copy the relevant Chinese laws, the Tung administration has instead followed common law concepts in framing the laws prohibiting treason, subversion, secession and sedition also required under the Basic Law's notorious Article 23. In some cases these are less restrictive than the outdated -- and in living memory unused -- provisions left behind by the British. Most seem to confine the offenses to acts encouraging violence, so minimizing the extent to which freedom of expression is undermined.

But even here are dangerous gray areas, along with several other worrying provisions elsewhere in the proposed national security legislation. Police powers will be strengthened and there is also a proposal to amend the law on official secrets that will make it easier to prosecute the media, among others, for publishing information that embarrasses the government.

In any case, no amount of liberalizing of other areas of the law can compensate for the gaping hole that the provision on outlawing organizations essentially on China's say-so drives through the concepts of freedom of association and freedom of speech. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this is that the Hong Kong government seems intent on curtailing civil liberties by more than is actually required by Article 23, the relevant provisions of which only forbids links with foreign political organizations but do not extend China's state security paranoia to the territory.

Not for the first time, the Tung administration is intent on proving its patriotism by going even further than has been publicly demanded by Beijing -- giving cause for concern about how it might use this legislation in the years ahead. The only room for optimism is that the proposals unveiled yesterday are not yet law, and the Hong Kong government has made no secret of its nervousness about how they will be perceived by the international community.

From the U.S. State Department to the Foreign Office in London, there is often a tendency to avoid protesting too strongly about worrying events in Hong Kong for fear of upsetting both governments' relations with China. But if there was ever a time to speak out in the strongest of terms, this is it. Hong Kong's civil liberties are at stake, and a concerted show of international concern might just be enough to make the Tung administration think twice about breaking China's promises to the world that Hong Kong's free and open society will be preserved.