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The Economist: Death by slow boiling -- Are Hong Kong's liberties gradually being taken away?

September 28, 2002 |  

September 26, 2002


THROW a frog into boiling water and it jumps out; gently bring it to the boil, and the frog, never noticing the incremental increases in heat, allows itself to be cooked. Is Hong Kong a frog in a pot in Beijing's kitchen? If so, then on September 24th the temperature rose another notch.

On that day, Hong Kong's government formally began -- by circulating a consultation paper -- the process of enacting a controversial set of laws against subversion, sedition, treason and other ills, as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law, the territory's constitution. Overdue and a mere matter of protocol, says the government -- something that should have been seen to in 1997, when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty. An insidious threat to Hong Kong's liberties, counter the critics. If Article 23 could wait for five years, what's the urgency now?

To understand the controversy, it is necessary to know a bit about Article 23's history. The Basic Law came into being during the 1980s and 1990s, as a result of the negotiations between Britain and China about Hong Kong's handover. Its over-arching formula came to be known as "one country, two systems". Hong Kong, in other words, would remain autonomous, and would enjoy freedoms absent on the Communist mainland. A principal concession to Beijing was a phrase, included in 1988, requiring Hong Kong to prohibit any act "to subvert" the central government.

The problem, however, was that subversion is an alien term to Anglo-Saxon common law, on which Hong Kong's legal system is based. After all, most citizens in free societies regard it as a basic right to subvert -- peacefully -- their own governments: they call it opposition. So a second draft, in February 1989, replaced "subversion" with "treason, secession, sedition or theft of state secrets," concepts already defined, if not much invoked.

Then came the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. Hong Kong was horrified at the crimes committed by its future leaders, but the leaders were horrified in turn by the prospect that they might soon have to contend with similar uprisings in Hong Kong, where they would be powerless to crack down. The colony was rocked by huge demonstrations in support of the students. Supplies, money and, perhaps most important, newspapers were sent to them. In the months after the massacre, China insisted on a new draft. The final version of Article 23, in April 1990, restored the requirement for the prohibition of subversion, and added new ones aimed at links between "political bodies" in Hong Kong and abroad.

"Isn't it obvious that, after Tiananmen, Beijing felt threatened and wanted more control?" asks Martin Lee, who helped draft the early versions of the Basic Law and now leads Hong Kong's Democratic Party, the closest thing to an opposition in Hong Kong's toothless and mostly unelected legislature. The fear is that the proposed laws are really targeted at groups such as Falun Gong, a spiritual movement considered an [slanderous term deleted] on the mainland but currently legal in Hong Kong. Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive [...], certainly appears to hate having to tolerate Falun Gong in Hong Kong. He might welcome means to brand the group as subversive and deal with it accordingly.

Falun Gong, moreover, is only the most obvious potential target of the new laws. Other dissidents are worried too. So are some journalists and academics, who fret about the clauses regarding theft of state secrets and sedition. Could a research paper on, say, Taiwan-mainland relations constitute a "seditious publication"?


Critics fear this is all part of a pattern, whereby Mr Tung is slowly eroding Hong Kong's checks and balances. In July, he altered Hong Kong's colonial government structure, in which he sat atop an apolitical civil service. He replaced it with one in which he oversees a cabinet of ministers accountable only to himself, who is in turn accountable only to Beijing. It is these ministers who are now drafting Hong Kong's new laws. Every few months, it seems, the water gets a little hotter.