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Saturday, Oct. 19, 2002

More restrictions on Hong Kong rights?


HONG KONG -- For five years, people in Hong Kong have been worrying about restrictions on their rights and freedoms that could result from laws on treason, secession, sedition and subversion, mandated by the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.

Fortunately, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region deferred enactment of those laws, which are provided for by Article 23 of the Basic Law, which says in part: "The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central people's Government, or theft of state secrets."

Recently, however, Chinese officials have been impatient and have reminded Hong Kong of its obligation to legislate. Recently, Secretary for Security Regina Ip disclosed that Hong Kong has held consultations with Beijing and both sides have agreed that Article 23 legislation will be passed by next July.

The government's proposals have been made public in a consultation document. It plans to introduce new laws on secession and subversion, while modifying existing legislation on treason, sedition and spying.

The government insists that its proposals are consistent with human rights covenants. However, it appears inevitable that certain freedoms will be affected. For example, Solicitor General Robert Allcock, in an interview, explained that the offense of treason -- which means betrayal of one's country -- would also apply to foreigners.

This may result in situations where a foreigner standing up for his own country can be accused of treason -- for not being loyal to China.

Another provision to be introduced would virtually give the Chinese government the right to proscribe certain organizations in Hong Kong that it doesn't like. If the mainland proscribes an organization on national-security grounds, a Hong Kong organization affiliated with it may be proscribed as well.

As for whether the mainland organization truly poses a threat to national security, the consultation document says, "we should defer to the decision of the central authorities based on the comprehensive information it possesses."

That means that if the Chinese government proscribes Falun Gong on national security grounds, Hong Kong will follow suit, since Beijing knows best what is a threat to its national security.

Ip has reassuringly pointed out that Falun Gong was proscribed in the mainland for being an evil cult, and not for national security reasons. However, this appears to be a weak reed on which to rest one's trust. On Oct. 31, 1999, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate issued an "Explanation of Legal Issues" on the anticult crackdown. That document made it clear that one of the chief targets of the crackdown were "those (evil cultists) who organize, plan, carry out or incite crimes of splitting the nation, sabotaging national unity, or subverting state power and overthrowing the socialist system."

It would be a simple matter for the Chinese government to declare Falun Gong to be a danger to national security. And then Hong Kong would have little choice but to follow suit.

The SAR government says that it consulted Beijing because the central government knows better than anyone what the threats to national security are. It can similarly be said that the central government knows better than anyone else what state secrets are. And that, it seems, includes virtually any and all official information. Recently, an AIDS activist was accused of leaking state secrets, which turned out to be a report on the state of the disease in Henan province, where it has spread rapidly because of a blood-transfusion scandal.

The consultation document, of course, only lays out general principles. There is a pressing need for the government to produce an actual bill, so the public will know what the laws themselves will say. Only when people see the language of the law can they properly respond to what is being produced. So far, however, the government has refused to pledge that it will seek the public's views on the actual legislation. It should do so without delay.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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