Government Refusal on White Bill Raises Fears for Hong Kong Freedoms

November 4, 2002 - 0:0
HONG KONG -- As the Hong Kong government stands firm in its refusal to consider more consultation before enacting anti-subversion laws, many fear the legislation could spell doom for cherished freedoms in the former British colony.

The government has insisted that five years after reverting to Chinese rule, the time had come for it to meet constitutional obligations and implement laws to protect national security.

However, human rights and pro-democracy groups are worried that China could use the new laws to crackdown on wide-ranging freedoms including those of media, speech, religion as well as to ban groups it considers a threat, AFP reported.

Opponents charge the government with rushing through the laws, without adequate consultation, under pressure from Beijing.

Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, who is responsible for Hong Kong affairs, has insisted Beijing has not pressured authorities in Hong Kong, nor participated in drafting the law but simply laid down general principles. Hong Kong Security Secretary Regina Ip has also insisted: "We have taken five years to research our proposals so we are not hurrying through this exercise."

However, recent comments by Qian that those who fear the new laws would affect freedom of speech did so because they had something to hide -- or "a devil in their heart" -- added to fears China was the mastermind behind the territory's move to legislate.

Under Article 23 of the basic law, the territory's mini-constitution, Hong Kong is obliged to pass laws banning treason, sedition, subversion and theft of state secrets.

Political analyst at city university, Joseph Cheng said: "It is worrying that senior officials in China keep talking about this matter, which the basic law states should be left to Hong Kong. "It is seen by many as exerting pressure on the Hong Kong government to accelerate the enacting of the law."

Under the "one country, two systems" formula that governed Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, the territory was allowed to retain its capitalist lifestyle and a high degree of autonomy for 50 years.

However, human rights groups have expressed fears that Article 23 could spell the end of "one country, two systems" and British colonial style freedoms enjoyed in the territory.

"Article 23 will set a trend for Beijing to have the final control of Hong Kong on important freedoms," said Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong human rights monitor.

"No matter how the Hong Kong administration say they will enforce the law with goodwill, once the law is in place, China will push for enforcement and try to stretch the law to its limits and probably beyond," he said.

Under the proposed laws, police will get extensive investigative powers. Penalties for crimes against the state will be stiffened with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Hong Kong does not have the death penalty.

Groups with affiliations to organizations China deems a threat to the communist regime could be banned.

The government says it has sufficient checks in place to prevent abuses, pointing in particular to its court system.

Ip has also said that if groups like the Falungong, banned in China but legal in Hong Kong, continued to operate as they do at present they would not be outlawed.

However, the assurances have done little to dispel fears among many sectors of society.

Journalists have expressed concern about the penalties for unauthorized disclosure of official confidential information and indeed what would constitute an official document or unauthorized leak.