The honeymoon is over. Beijing's patience is running out. Hong Kong's recently re-appointed chief executive, Tung Chee Hwa, is about to install the necessary legal mechanisms to enable Beijing to suppress the free press and dissident groups in Hong Kong.
After many months of careful planning, a consultation paper entitled "Proposals to Implement Article 23 of the Basic Law" (Hong Kong's mini-constitution) was released this week by the chief executive.
Article 23 is the most controversial provision in the Basic Law, which was promulgated by the National People's Congress in Beijing on April 4, 1990. This was exactly 10 months after the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, a bloody crackdown of what was a peaceful student movement for democracy and clean government in mainland China, which drew support from almost the entire population of Hong Kong.
The timing of the passage of the Basic Law was unfortunate, because it came at a time when the Beijing leaders were not even sure of their own ability to remain in power. So control was the key word, including over Hong Kong affairs. Article 23 therefore requires the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to enact laws to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, theft of state secrets and to prohibit local political groups from having any ties with foreign political bodies.
This article has the clear potential to enable Beijing to exercise absolute control over the mass media as well as all dissident groups in Hong Kong. And fear of being prosecuted is likely to cause the local mass media to practise even more self-restraint. More than five years have now elapsed since the handover on July 1, 1997, and Hong Kong has been extremely stable politically without any such laws. But Beijing still wants more control. Two months ago, Qian Qichen, the Chinese vice-premier responsible for Hong Kong affairs, said publicly that Article 23 should be implemented now.
Indeed, all the indications are that the Hong Kong government has been in close touch and has reached agreement with Beijing over both the contents and timetable for the proposed legislation. This is to ensure that what is enacted in Hong Kong will not be inconsistent with the laws in the mainland China even though, under the "one country, two systems" policy and the Basic Law, Hong Kong should be left to legislate those provisions "on its own." Nor is Beijing supposed to have any power of veto over laws enacted by the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's legislature.
So the consultation period of three months is but part of a public relations exercise to win the public's support, in order to shut up any concern that may be expressed both in Hong Kong and abroad. But the public will not be told the entire truth. Instead, the proposals are all couched in broad principles and without specifics. Who can ever object to a law of treason which imposes a penalty of life imprisonment (for there is no capital punishment in Hong Kong) on anyone who joins forces with a foreign power to levy war against the People's Republic of China and overturn its government?
But in the same breath, there is a proposal to give additional powers to the police. These will allow a police superintendent to break into and search a person's home or office without a search warrant for most of the Article 23 offences, if he reasonably believes that the investigation of such an offence would be seriously prejudiced without immediate entry.
The devil is in the detail. But for the Hong Kong government to win public support, the devil must not be exposed during this consultation period. And the public cannot be expected to read the entire document anyway, particularly in a gloomy economic climate in Hong Kong when people are more worried over the possible loss of their jobs and pay cuts.
But a careful reading between the lines reveals a number of time bombs. The following are just two examples: The most hated people in mainland China must be the Falun Gong followers who have long been branded as an evil cult, and imprisoned, or expelled from China. The Falun Gong followers in Hong Kong are currently tolerated by the Hong Kong government, although some local as well as foreign Falun Gong practitioners have been recently arrested and prosecuted in the courts. And Mr. Tung, protected by privilege during a recent session in the Legislative Council, called the Falun Gong an evil cult.
Under the present proposals, so long as Beijing decides and states that the Falun Gong "endangers national security" in mainland China, and that the Hong Kong Falun Gong is a branch of the mainland group, the Hong Kong government would have to take action against Falun Gong followers in Hong Kong. In other words, the initiative lies with Beijing.
As for the press, take the example of a newspaper that publishes an article stating that a prime commercial site in the Central district of Hong Kong presently occupied by the People's Liberation Army would soon be released to the Hong Kong government so that it could be redeveloped into a large office and commercial complex. If such information had come from an unauthorized source, then both the newspaper and the reporter who wrote the article would be committing a criminal offence under the new law, which seeks to protect "information relating to relation between the Central Authorities of the PRC and the HKSAR," and be liable to a prison term of up to five years.
These are shocking scenarios for anyone in any country or territory where there is supposed to be the rule of law. Many people outside Hong Kong will no doubt wonder why Mr. Tung and his government will do this in Hong Kong. The answer is simple: Beijing wants it done.
Mr. Tung would not have been given a second term of office on July 1, but for the open support given to him by the top three Beijing leaders. And with the recent establishment of a so-called accountability system, which makes all senior officials accountable to Mr. Tung, who is in turn only accountable to Beijing, the Hong Kong government will do everything as directed by their masters in Beijing.
As for the undemocratically constituted legislature, only 20 legislators out of a total of 60 members will vote against government proposals, and the majority of 40 will support them no matter how bad they are. Further, there is effectively no possibility of there ever being a fully democratically elected legislature in Hong Kong unless Beijing gives the nod, which will only happen if the Beijing leaders are confident that the pro-Beijing political parties will win elections on a one person one vote basis.
The only thing remaining is an independent judiciary--but what can the most independent judge do to protect human rights if the law in fact gives those powers to the government? With the passage of these laws under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Beijing's control over Hong Kong will be complete.
Mr. Lee is the chairman of the Democratic Party, a democratically elected legislator and a former member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee.