The Asian Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2002

Just Another Chinese City

By Martin C.M. Lee

HONG KONG -- Five years after Hong Kong's handover, China's curtain is closing over our once free society. At Beijing's directive, Hong Kong's government has unveiled controversial new measures on "treason, subversion, sedition, and secession." Such vague laws are used in mainland China to convict and imprison everyone from Internet entrepreneurs to journalists to academics. In Asia's competitive financial environment, Beijing's move could constitute a mortal blow to Hong Kong's delicate free society.

Why the move to smother civil society in Hong Kong now? Orders from Beijing. Last July, Qian Qichen, the deputy prime minister responsible for Hong Kong affairs, marked the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China by declaring that anti-subversion laws should be implemented immediately. Despite unprecedented opposition, including from local and international business, religious, media and human rights groups, Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed government plans to rush forward legislation in early 2003. The subversion law directly contravenes the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the pre-handover treaty guaranteeing all Hong Kong's freedoms -- including press freedom, religious freedom, and freedom of association -- would continue for 50 years, not a mere five. But the Chinese government has been clever: the spotlight once on Hong Kong has shifted, and few outside the territory have reacted to the subversion law with appropriate alarm. The most immediate threats are to press and religious freedom.

Today, Hong Kong has the most vibrant press in Asia, with some 35 daily newspapers. Although self-censorship has increased dramatically since 1997, brave journalists continue to report news from Hong Kong and developments in China. The new law dealing with the "Theft of State Secrets" and publishing of "unauthorized" news could affect both Hong Kong and overseas reporters. Anyone publishing so-called seditious material could be jailed for five years. Hong Kong's security chief stated publicly that Chinese officials' views will even be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute the media.

Of course, even before the law is passed, the first tangible effect will be a chill in reporting any sensitive information at all, including financial information -- such as about China's many state-owned enterprises. As for religious freedom, this law that appears targeted at the Falun Gong could well end up stifling other religious groups. Catholic Church leader Bishop Joseph Zen has confirmed that the Hong Kong Catholic Church is linked to the underground church in the mainland, and that they therefore are directly threatened by the proposed anti-subversion laws.

In fact, any group that falls afoul of Beijing can easily be quashed under Hong Kong's new law. Life was already precarious for democratic politicians, journalists, labor and rights activists among others, and now has become more so. Beijing already controls our executive branch through its appointed leader, Tung Chee-hwa, the legislature through an undemocratic electoral system, and the judiciary through China's ability to overturn interpretations by Hong Kong's highest court, the Court of Final Appeal. The only truly free aspect of Hong Kong has been our robust and occasionally noisy civil society -- perhaps explaining why it is now under threat.

President Bush has made his own views clear. At the close of his October meeting with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin at his ranch in Texas, he called on China to "preserve the rights of Hong Kong citizens." Absent continued international outcry, the subversion bill will be introduced early in the new year and fast-tracked into law by next July. Once these new laws are on the books, no freedoms will be guaranteed, and Hong Kong could be reduced to just another Chinese city.

Mr. Martin Lee is the founding chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party.

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