The New York Times, 03 June 2003

China's Censors Extend Their Reach



By Martin C. M. Lee

During nearly six years under Chinese rule, Hong Kong has withstood threats as varied as the Asian financial crisis and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak. Now, however, Hong Kong's free society is about to encounter the most dangerous attack yet, and this one - like SARS - has its genesis in China.

On July 9, over widespread public protest, the Hong Kong government intends to push through a national security bill that would criminalize "treason, sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets." This language may not seem so insidious, but in China such laws are regularly used to put political critics away for long prison terms. Just this week, four Chinese intellectuals were sentenced to up to 10 years in prison on "subversion" charges for criticizing the government on the Internet. The new law is being put forward despite Beijing's promise of 50 years of "one country, two systems" when the British handed over Hong Kong in 1997. The government had put forward even harsher proposals last fall that drew widespread criticism, and has offered this version as a supposed concession to civil-liberties groups. This is a familiar gambit - the government sends out a ludicrous first draft as a trial balloon, then makes cosmetic concessions and ends up with the draconian measure it intended all along.

The law would introduce Chinese legal standards through the back door, which would make it possible for the government to effectively shut down groups with ties to suspect mainland organizations like Falun Gong or the Roman Catholic Church. Journalists, and government officials who leak information to them, could be subject to prison terms. The bill, combined with the absence of democratic checks and balances in our system, would roll back basic freedoms, including religious freedom, press freedom and freedom of association.

The SARS epidemic is a perfect example of how damaging this law could be to Hong Kong - and to the rest of a globalized world. Hong Kong's unfettered press played the key role in alerting the world to SARS and to the cover-up by mainland officials. This was no small feat. Explaining the nature of the virus and its means of transmission to the public posed serious challenges even in democratic countries - look at the hysteria in Canada. Imagine how much longer the world would have waited to learn the truth if Hong Kong had been just another censored Chinese city. But after the passage of the new subversion law, Hong Kong reporters who uncovered evidence about something like the SARS outbreak could be prosecuted for "unauthorized disclosure of protected information." Or if a reporter uncovered, say, government graft connected to the 2008 Olympic Games, leaders in Beijing could use the law to quash any articles.

If journalists or scholars try to publish unauthorized information, it could be banned under the slightest pretense, and the authors would not be allowed to argue in court that publication was in the public interest. Foreign-owned publications operating in Hong Kong or even just distributed here could face prosecution for sedition. The SARS cover-up did more than show the vital role of a free press; it also laid bare the lack of faith among the people of Hong Kong in their government. The approval ratings for Tung Chee-hwa, the chief executive appointed by Beijing, fell to new lows. In China, the SARS debacle resulted in the firing of the director of the Ministry of Health and the mayor of Beijing. Yet in Hong Kong there are no prospects for comparable increased political accountability. Because China controls our political process, there are no provisions for the start of real democracy, meaning an elected chief executive and legislature, until 2007 - and not even then without Beijing's green light.

Until now there has at least always been sufficient civil pressure on the Hong Kong government to ensure basic freedoms. The groups influencing civil society include the liveliest news media in Asia, as well as a strong educational system and legal community and dozens of religious and civic organizations - it is an example of Tocqueville's observation of how Americans "constantly form associations" to mediate between individuals and government. It is not by chance that there are no such civil groups in China. And the new law would end up making Hong Kong look a lot more like the mainland.

Part of Hong Kong's prosperity results from its being the information center of China. Recognizing this, President Bush warned China in November about "preserving the rights of Hong Kong citizens," and his administration and other Western governments put pressure on our executive branch to open the issue for public debate. But then SARS took over the headlines, and the government has moved quietly ahead to rush the bill through the Legislative Council, of which fewer than half the members is democratically elected. It is too late to stop the bill from being put to a vote, but there is still an opportunity to seek concessions. The United States and the international community have just a few weeks to convince the governments of Beijing and Hong Kong of the folly in suppressing press freedom and civil society.

We in Hong Kong now face two challenges to our very existence: eliminating SARS and protecting basic rights. There is always the hope that a cure for SARS will soon be found. But once civil liberties are rolled back, repression will be here to stay.

Martin C.M. Lee is a member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council and founding chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong.

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