South China Morning Post, July 1, 1998

Beijing the new colonial ruler

Return of the imperialists: Beijing worked swiftly to sack democratically elected members of Legco in its ''smooth'' handover.

By Martin C.M. Lee

The past year has seen many things that were expected - and some things, like the economic crisis, that were not. According to many observers, overall the handover and the past year went "smoothly" - which meant the mainland's plans for Hong Kong went off without a hitch.

I do not disagree. As promised, and on schedule, China carried out its plan to sack the most democratically elected legislature in Hong Kong's history and create a "provisional legislature" to water down civil liberties and rule of law.

Provisional legislators, despite having no legal standing under either the Joint Declaration or the Basic Law, set about revising the Public Order and Societies ordinances to restrict freedoms of assembly, demonstration and speech, and introduced the nebulous concept of "national security" to Hong Kong's legal code for the first time. And, as promised by Beijing, key provisions of the Bill of Rights Ordinance were repealed.

The Hong Kong Government showed a worrisome favouritism towards those connected to, or in the case of Xinhua, part of, the Central Government. Just before adjourning, the provisional legislature established immunity for Chinese Government organisations, like Xinhua, Beijing's diplomatic and intelligence operation in Hong Kong, even though Article 22(3) of the Basic Law provides that "all offices set up in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by departments of the Central Government . . . and the personnel of these offices shall abide by the laws of the Region". And the Chief Executive himself tacked towards the central government rather than the people of Hong Kong he ostensibly serves.

To ensure lasting effect for these assaults on Hong Kong citizens' freedoms, China guaranteed the first SAR legislature would be dominated by its allies.

Under rules devised by Beijing and the provisional legislature, Hong Kong's first elections under Chinese rule were even more anti-democratic than under the British colonial government. With just 20 democratically elected seats, and 40 more picked through various absurd procedures, few expected the May 24 elections would be anything more than a pro forma exercise that Beijing could use as propaganda.

But something quite unexpected happened on May 24: facing a rigged system and torrential rains, Hong Kong people went to the polls in record numbers. The turnout doubled from the 1995 elections with more than 53 per cent of registered voters casting ballots. Pro-democracy candidates won two-third of the popular vote, an unassailable mandate from the people to continue to press for democracy, the rule of law and human rights, even as our presence inside the legislative chamber was limited to just one- third.

After a year in which they saw Beijing systematically fulfil many threats to undermine Hong Kong's institutions and freedoms, what explains the actions of the Hong Kong people? The answer is courage and conviction. In this historic first year as part of China, Hong Kong people - who many had long suggested were interested only in their wallets - shattered the myth they cared nothing for their rights and freedoms.

The voting turnout was just one example. Hong Kong people and particularly Hong Kong's tenacious press, were decisive in preventing Beijing from going as far as it might otherwise have in undermining rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. Strong protest greeted the provisional legislature's attempts to water down Hong Kong people's freedoms, forcing retreat and even the postponement of a subversion bill.

The threat of censorship on publicly-funded RTHK elicited a barrage of criticism from the community. It seems the Government knows - for now at least - it cannot openly muzzle the media in Hong Kong. The first commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre since Hong Kong rejoined China brought out 40,000 Hong Kong people in pouring rain to remember those who died or were jailed in 1989.

However, it is too early to declare victory in the battle to keep Hong Kong free. During the course of the next year, there will be more challenges. The debate over adoption of a law on subversion will be a great test of the new legislature, particularly those members allied more closely with Beijing than with their own constituents.

The Democratic Party, with 13 seats, and our allies, with a combined total of 20 seats, do not command a majority. We will not be able to win important debates by votes alone. But our moral authority which comes >from an overwhelming mandate will be impossible to ignore. I hope Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa will bear in mind the legitimacy of the pro-democracy legislators being sworn in tomorrow.

Although Beijing has replaced Britain as Hong Kong's sovereign, in many respects Beijing is now a colonial ruler, denying Hong Kong people the right to govern themselves as promised in the Joint Declaration. We have seen that Beijing's promises to allow Hong Kong autonomy, democracy, and the rule of law must be fought for to be realised.

For the time being, Hong Kong people are still speaking freely, enjoying a free press, and having justice dispensed fairly. But thanks to the rollback of civil liberties by the provisional legislature, there are no guarantees the freedoms will continue. Until Hong Kong, and indeed China, are able to establish a genuine democracy, the rule of law, and the institutions that protect individual liberties, Hong Kong can expect a high degree of arbitrariness, rather than autonomy.

Nevertheless, if the last year has a lesson, it is that Hong Kong people will take up every opportunity to advance democracy in Hong Kong, and those who fail to recognise that good governance requires the support and consent of the people will be doomed to failure.

Copyright ©1998 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Martin Lee Chu-ming is Democratic Party chairman and will be sworn back in as an elected Legislative Councillor tomorrow.

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