HK citizens call impromptu
By A Lin Neumann
When half a million people stage a protest march
anywhere it is big news. When that many people march in
a city of 6.8 million people that is formally a part of
mainland China, as they did in Hong Kong on July 1, it
amounts to something of a political revolution.
To top it off, the people in the streets seem to
Denied real self-government when the
former British colony was handed back to the motherland
on July 1, 1997, the people of Hong Kong appear intent
on seizing democracy for themselves - and their
government has no real choice but to pay attention. No
matter how Beijing fixes the game, democracy just won't
go away in Hong Kong.
The ostensible reason for
last week's stunning outpouring of public sentiment was
to protest against the pending passage of
Beijing-mandated national security legislation, required
under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution
governing the territory under Chinese sovereignty and
the principle of "one country, two systems". The bill,
critics fear, could lead to censorship of the press,
prosecution for revealing "state secrets" and the
erosion of cherished civil liberties.
turnout against the legislation was so massive that even
pro-Beijing government allies backed away from the bill,
leaving the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
(SAR) government with no option but to cave in to public
anger and delay passage. This should not have been so
The government brought this crisis
upon itself. In unveiling its proposals for
national-security legislation last September, it acted
as if the bill was inevitable and public scrutiny a
minor inconvenience. When challenged in the press on
early versions, hardline Secretary for Security Regina
Ip and other functionaries in essence took a "trust us"
position, apparently assuming that their word should be
sufficient to calm public concerns.
Kong SAR government," Ip wrote in the Asian Wall Street
Journal in September, "is acutely aware that the free
flow of information and expression of views is vital to
our continued development as an international business
and trading center. We have an unflinching intention to
protect these rights and freedoms."
she even made the claim that a majority of Hong Kong
people supported the anti-subversion legislation. No one
was buying it and Hong Kong's civil-society groups and
pro-democracy legislators began mounting a systematic
and highly effective local and international campaign to
critique and delay it. Journalists, fearful of the
impact of the legislation on their ability to work,
filled op-ed pages with commentary on the bill and
mounted public-education campaigns in tandem with the
Hong Kong Bar Association and others to get the word
out. Some Hong Kong publishers and businessmen even
bankrolled anti-Article 23 activities.
all seemed pretty futile, to be honest, and the
government was intent on passing the legislation by this
month, come what may. Calls for a so-called "white
paper" version of the bill that would have allowed for
widespread public debate before the draft was finalized
went ignored by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa & Co.
I spoke at a forum on Article 23 at Hong Kong
University in mid-June and the reaction of the
government to this event, organized by the Hong Kong Bar
Association, seemed typical. Solicitor General Bob
Alcock, one of the chief public faces of the
legislation, showed up to listen to a morning of
criticism from a panel of local and international
When he finally rose to address the
small audience, he shrugged his shoulders and said,
"'One country, two systems' is very much in place and in
most respects this bill is a liberalizing measure - and
that's a fact." The statement was stunningly tone-deaf.
This government simply could not understand why people
fear the Article 23 legislation.
Ever since the
1997 handover to Beijing, Hong Kong has seemed to be
heading in a downward spiral toward irrelevance and - if
not outright repression - static caution in public
debate and expression. Longtime Hong Kongers, both
Chinese and European, often say, as one businessman
friend of mine did last month, "We are just going to be
a big port city on the Pearl River once Beijing is
through with us. They are marching us toward
Article 23, with its fear-tainted
language, seemed another part of the strategy. What if
journalists report on Falungong members in Hong Kong?
Could that be illegal? Might it be illegal to report on
stories about Beijing leaked out of the Hong Kong
government? What does it mean to subvert the government,
anyway? Will Hong Kong journalists and academics still
be able to talk about Taiwanese or Tibetan independence?
No one really knows, but few people are ready to take
their leaders' word that everything will be fine.
Given that Hong Kong does not have a democratic
government, fear of coming repression seems reasonable.
The legislature is dominated by pro-Beijing "functional"
representatives elected by special interests whose
voting power was engineered by China to outstrip the
minority of directly elected lawmakers. Tung's
"re-election" last year to another five-year term was a
bad joke. An 800-member Beijing-appointed electoral
council made him the only nominee and then promptly
voted him in with the kind of landslide that that only
occurs in totalitarian countries.
Once he was
re-upped for another term, practically his first act was
to create a new layer of government ministers
accountable only to him and, by extension, to the
Add to this dysfunctional and
unrepresentative government, a slumping economy and the
poorly managed SARS crisis, and you have a classic
climate for a referendum on the government. Article 23
was the fuse and July 1 the perfect symbolic date.
In effect, Hong Kong has now voted with its
feet, and Tung must face the consequences. When Liberal
Party chairman James Tien, a Tung insider, resigned from
the Executive Council over the weekend as a result of
the flap over Article 23, the beleaguered chief
executive seemed to have lost not just the Article 23
battle but his ability to rule.
This is a real
pickle for Beijing. If China forces the legislation now,
it stands a substantial chance of being defeated without
the Liberal Party's votes. If the legislation is
materially altered, opened to real public debate and
delayed as critics want, it will be a triumph for the
democracy of the streets. All this in China. Imagine
A Lin Neumann is the Asia
consultant to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All
rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
for information on our sales and syndication policies.)