Anti-Treason Law May Stifle Hong Kong's Promised Freedoms

Patrick Goodenough | Pacific Rim Bureau Chief | Monday, December 9, 2002

Anti-Treason Law May Stifle Hong Kong's Promised Freedoms

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Hong Kong's attempts to introduce anti-subversion laws are rapidly becoming the most contentious issue the former British colony has faced since reverting to communist Chinese control five years ago.

Religious, business, media and other interest groups are alarmed by the proposed law, which many fear will restrict the freedoms the seven million residents enjoy under the "one country, two systems" formula governing Hong Kong's return to China.

Hong Kong's government is obliged under article 23 of its Basic Law, or mini-constitution, to amend its laws to ban subversion, treason, sedition and secession against Beijing.

Organizations that are banned or restricted in China but operate freely in Hong Kong - such as the Falun Gong meditation sect and the Roman Catholic Church - are concerned the law could be used against them in the territory as well.

The "one country, two systems" agreement guaranteed Hong Kong considerable autonomy and the right to enjoy its Western-style, capitalist way of life for 50 years.

But many have suggested that chief executive Tung Chee-hwa is so keen to please Beijin, he will allow laws that erode those freedoms and prevent residents from criticizing China or its policies.

Tung's administration has stressed repeatedly that the proposed implementation of article 23 will not conflict with the Hong Kong constitution's human rights provisions.

It is also carrying out a three-month program of public consultation on proposals unveiled last September, which opponents say are purposefully vague. The actual draft will only be released early next year, and the law is expected to be in place by mid-2003.

Not satisfied by the promise of consultation, however, critics claim parts of the law have already been jointly agreed upon by the territory's officials and the Chinese government.

Making this charge Thursday was Martin Lee, a leading opposition politician, who expressed doubts that the consultation process was a genuine one.

Addressing foreign correspondents, Lee said Hong Kong officials were trying to make the law "compatible" with Chinese security laws.

But Hong Kong had its own legal system, he said. "If every law were compatible, where do you have 'one country, two systems'?"

Lee warned that Beijing could label groups in China as threats to national security, and then apply that definition to those groups in Hong Kong too, threatening their existence in the territory.

Criticism also came from Frances D'Souza, a leading British human rights advocate.

She told a press conference in the city Wednesday that the proposals as they stood were "akin to putting people in a police state."

One of article 23's leading critics is the newly-installed head of Hong Kong's Catholics, Bishop Joseph Zen.

Zen has upset Beijing in the past by questioning the lack of religious freedom in China, and has been refused official permission to visit the mainland since 1998.

The Catholic Church thrives in Hong Kong, but China has not recognized it since the 1950s when it cut ties with the Vatican and established an alternative, "Patriotic" Catholic denomination.

An estimated 10 million Catholics who are loyal to the Pope shun the state church and worship in secret, risking imprisonment.

Zen was quoted this week as voicing concern that the security laws could target the Falun Gong - outlawed in China as an "evil cult" - and also possibly the Catholic Church.

"If tomorrow they say the underground church in China is dangerous for the state and then they say you are the same Catholic Church ... we are in trouble," he said.

Parts of the banking sector have also voiced disquiet, according to Bank of Asia chairman and Hong Kong lawmaker David Li.

He said this week some bankers were concerned the law could restrict the free flow of information, and raised the possibility some institutions could as a result even decide to expand their operations elsewhere, at Hong Kong's expense.

More than 800 local journalists have signed a petition against the law, which Hong Kong Journalists' Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting said risked jeopardizing the territory's status as an international media center.

The Paris-based World Association of Newspapers also wrote to Tung, warning that the article 23 proposals could have a "chilling" effect on freedom of expression.

Similar points have been made by organizations such as Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

A large protest march is being planned in the territory on Dec. 15.

Responding to some of the criticisms, Hong Kong's acting permanent Secretary for Security, Timothy Tong, said early this week there was no question of mainland laws being extended to the territory.

"All the proposals will be implemented by local legislation which will only be interpreted by Hong Kong courts," he said.

"Our courts are fully cognizant of the common law principles and international human rights standards."

Last month, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Washington would like to see a "transparent and fair" system in Hong Kong, to allow its people to enjoy the freedoms that had made it an "international city with its own unique character."

See earlier stories:
Hong Kong's New Catholic Leader A Thorn In Authorities' Side (Sept 24, 2002)
Hong Kong Freedoms In Spotlight Ahead Of Takeover Anniversary (June 28, 2002)