Thursday, September 19, 2002

Tracking freedom in Hong Kong.

Date: Thursday 19 September 2002
Subj: Tracking freedom in Hong Kong.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


The eroding of freedom in Hong Kong has been done so gently and slowly that it has scarcely attracted any attention, like a burglar tiptoeing so quietly that he manages to steal without setting off any alarm bells. However, Beijing's insistence that Hong Kong start enacting controversial anti-subversion legislation just might trigger the sensors, especially when we understand that it is China's definition of subversion that will stand, as it is China's National People's Congress in Beijing that has the final word on all matters pertaining to interpretation of Basic Law in Hong Kong.

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TRACKING FREEDOM IN HONG KONG

In 1985, Britain and China ratified the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Under its terms, China would regain sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997 and Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) with its economic and social systems remaining unchanged for 50 years.

In 1995 all seats in the Legislative Council were declared vacant and democratic elections were held. Pro-China parties polled poorly, winning only 16 of the 60 seats, while candidates in favour of increasing openness and democracy won 26 seats and pro-business, politically neutral candidates won those remaining. China was so incensed that they threatened to dissolve the Legislative Council after 1997, even though that would be a clear violation of the 1985 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese hands on 30 June 1997 and the Chinese immediately dissolved the Legislative Council and replaced it with a handpicked body.

In 1999 Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal acknowledged the primacy of China's National People's Congress in Beijing as having the final word on all matters pertaining to constitutional issues and interpretation of Basic law.

On 11 July 2002 a bill was passed that gave Beijing the power to dismiss Hong Kong's leader. The BBC reported, "Under the proposal approved by Hong Kong's legislature on Wednesday (11/7/01), an 800-person committee will choose Hong Kong's next leader - but Beijing can fire the person."

"Critics say the law - proposed by the government - demolishes a crucial pillar of the autonomy the territory was promised when it was returned to China four years ago. The controversy over the bill is just the latest row that has raised fears that Hong Kong's autonomy is slowly being chipped away.

"The government is reportedly considering following China's example by banning the Falun Gong spiritual movement. However, Mr Tung said he told Mr Bush the territory would continue to tolerate a broad range of religious expression. 'Freedom of the press and religion are alive and kicking and doing well,' said Mr Tung. 'Four years since the return of Hong Kong, one country-two systems is everyday reality'." ("HK leader says freedom is safe" BBC 12 July 2001)

However, during 2002, journalists, Falun Gong and activists such as Harry Wu have been restricted, harassed, detained and deported. As the BBC notes, "A clear message is being sent - if Beijing doesn't like you, you will find it hard to get into Hong Kong." (See Link 1 - "Fears for Hong Kong's freedom" BBC 1 July 2002)

ENACTING THE ANTI-SUBVERSION LAW

An article entitled "Hong Kong signals it could soon enact anti-subversion law" (AFP 13 Sept) states: "The Hong Kong government has signalled it could soon move to enact controversial anti-subversion legislation it has been obliged to introduce since returning to Chinese rule five years ago.

"Justice Secretary Elsie Leung told reporters 'it is about time' to enact the law, which would punish offences against the state. Her remarks follow reports that a consultation paper on the issue would be issued as early as next month.

"Senior Chinese officials led by Vice Premier Qian Qichen, who is responsible for Hong Kong affairs, have told the territory to enact the subversion law as soon as possible.

"But some legislators fear such laws could run counter to Hong Kong's policies on freedom of speech and have argued that prohibition of treason and subversion are covered by existing legislation." (Full article - see link 2).

The Anti-subversion law in Article 23 of the Basic Law requires Hong Kong to legislate against treason, sedition, secession and subversion.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported the same story under the headline, "Groups meet to share views on proposed subversion law". Law Yuk-kai, director of Human Rights Monitor, is quoted as saying, "It will be a serious test of the willingness of the government to maintain Hong Kong as a tolerant and free society. Should the administration seek to interfere with Hong Kong's freedom of expression, freedom of information and academic freedom through such a law, it will fundamentally change the nature of Hong Kong's society."

"He (Mr. Law) said Human Rights Monitor and the Hong Kong Christian Institute had jointly called today's (Friday 13 Sept) meeting with NGOs including green groups, trade unions, religious groups and student organisations." The non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are meeting together to decide on a joint response. ("Groups meet to share views on proposed subversion law" by Angela Li, SCMP 13 Sept 2002).

Chinese authorities have denied that the law would affect freedom of expression in Hong Kong. However Mr. Law believes there is a need to take action. "'With the draconian law in place, non-governmental organisations which have dissenting voices would be banned gradually,' he said."

Pro-democracy legislators are seeking to widen public understanding of issues concerning the anti-subversion law. According to the SCMP, "They hope to provide campaigners against the proposed laws with substance to back up their slogans."

"Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, non-affiliated legislator representing the legal sector, is due to release to the media today (19/9) an information pack on Article 23 legislation. Another pro-democracy legislator, Cyd Ho Sau-lan, of the Frontier, plans to launch a Web site on Article 23 legislation in a fortnight's time." ("Legislators in push to broaden public knowledge of Article 23" by Angela Li and Jimmy Cheung, SCMP, 19 Sept 2002).

The NGOs will meet again on Monday 23 September to finalise the action they will take. ("NGOs weigh subversion law action" by May Sin-Mi Ho, SCMP 18 Sept 2002).

UPDATE: Massive protests led to the law being shelved -- for the time being.

- Elizabeth Kendal

Links

1) "Fears for Hong Kong's freedom" By Damian Grammaticas,
BBC Hong Kong correspondent 1 July 2002.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/2077589.stm

2) "Hong Kong signals it could soon enact anti-subversion law"
AFP 13 Sept 2002
http://sg.news.yahoo.com/020913/1/32qns.html