The Weekend Australian, November 23, 1996

Hong Kong Freedom in Danger: Democrat

By Martin C.M. Lee


On the eve of his visit here, Martin Lee, the chairman of Hong Kong's largest political party has a message for Australia

At midnight, June 30, 1997, 150 years of British Colonial rule in Hong Kong will come to an end. The impending transfer of sovereignty to China - only 200 days from now - should be a glorious day of celebration, a source of pride for all Chinese people. Instead, the approaching handover to China is a source of profound fear for many in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is well known to Australians as the city at the heart of Asia and as an immigrant society which shares the same freedoms, human rights and core values of Australian citizens.

Hong Kong and Australia have economic and personal ties that are among the closest in the Asia-Pacific region: Hong Kong is Australia's fourth largest source of foreign investment, fifth largest destination for foreign investment and 10th largest trading partner. In addition to Australia's economic interests in Hong Kong, Australia has a vital stake in Hong Kong's political future.

But the closer Hong Kong gets to the transfer of sovereignty to China, the more precarious that future looks. Rather than the broad economic, political and civil freedoms Hong Kong's 6.3 million citizens enjoy today, China's policy for Hong Kong after 1997 can now be summed up in a single word: control.

......As chairman of the largest party in the current elected Legislative Council, I will travel to Australia this week to alert the Australian Government and citizens to the pending demise of democracy in Hong Kong and to inform them of the devastating effects Beijing's blueprint for an appointed legislature, repressive laws and a restricted press will have on Hong Kong.

On December 21, the Chinese Government will set up its fully appointed so-called "provisional" legislature, to operate simultaneously with Hong Kong's legitimate legislature - elected in September 1995 to a four-year term.

China's establishment of an appointed legislature will dash already fragile local and international confidence in Hong Kong's future under Chinese rule and is a blatant breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guarantees that our legislature "shall be constituted by elections."

Next month, China's new legislature will be chosen by a 400-member selection committee, itself appointed by Beijing. Indeed to the astonishment of the local community, it now appears that many members of the provisional legislature will be pro-Beijing figures already soundly rejected by Hong Kong voters at the polls.

Chinese leaders say the earliest elections will be held is the end of 1998, leaving Hong Kong with a rump legislature for a period of approximately two years. And of course once Beijing is allowed to move the goalposts in such a fundamental way, there can be no guarantee that Hong Kong will ever have genuine elections again.

Beijing's new unelected legislature sends an unambiguous signal of China's intentions in Hong Kong and will unravel the fabric of freedom in the territory. Hong Kong has been told by top Chinese leaders that Beijing will not only change our legislature but also our laws.

China intends to use its rubber-stamp legislature to roll-back Hong Kong's Bill of Rights. New laws on subversion will be passed and draconian colonial laws restricting freedom of the press, assembly and of expression will be resurrected.

Once these repressive laws are in place, no matter how independent our judges may continue to be, they will have to apply the law as they find it. When Hong Kong's elected legislature is replaced by an appointed one, the rule of law in Hong Kong will be the first - but by no means the last - casualty.

The rule of law in Hong Kong today provides a dependable framework in which key economic, civil and political institutions thrive.

The more than 300 major Australian companies basing their operations in Hong Kong do so because of our rule of law, transparent and corruption-free government and level playing field. In contrast, China's rulers know only rule by law - with Communist Party officials above the law, controlling citizens through repressive laws. The result is human rights violations, corruption and an unpredictable investment climate in China.

The best known clichÇ about Hong Kong has always been that Chinese leaders will not damage Hong Kong because "China won't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs." But clearly, top leaders in China believe they can erode press and political freedoms without affecting economic success. In other words, they expect the Hong Kong goose to continue laying golden eggs - even with a noose around its neck.

Hong Kong is today not only the world's window on China, but also its window on the rest of Asia. How the Chinese Government handles Hong Kong will have broad strategic, commercial and political implications for the regional and international community. It will be the acid test both of China's role in the region and of its adherence to international treaties. Perhaps most important of all, I believe that it is also in China's own long-term best interest to make the transfer of sovereignty a success. In the short term, Chinese leaders need their neighbours in the region to encourage them to do so.

The Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Howard, meets the President of China, Mr. Jiang Zemin, this weekend. As a democratically elected leader himself I trust Mr. Howard will cite the future of freedoms and democratic institutions in Hong Kong as matters of great concern to Australia.

If Beijing's plans to sweep away Hong Kong's elected legislature, repeal Hong Kong's Bill of Rights and to censor the press are not raised by world democratic leaders, that sends a message to China too.

With Hong Kong lies China's own best hope for a modern, prosperous and free future and also the world's best hope for bringing China into the community of nations as a member in good standing.

But only if the international community stands firm and insists that China's leaders honour the solemn international promises they made to Hong Kong. And with only six months remaining to convince China not to destroy Hong Kong's legislature and freedoms, time is running out.

Today, China is a big country. But my vision is that one day China will be a great country - with Hong Kong's freedom, human rights, economic success and the rule of law pointing the way toward a free and prosperous future for all Chinese people everywhere.

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