After an eight-hour debate last Wednesday and Thursday over the controversial Public Order Ordinance relating to the right of peaceful assembly and demonstration in public places, the Government scored what many considered to be a costly victory. It secured the support of an undemocratically constituted Legislative Council, which effectively gave its thumbs-up to the government-sponsored motion backing the ordinance.
From now on, the Government can and will tell the world that the 'elected' legislature of Hong Kong has given its approval to the Public Order Ordinance, which therefore should not be changed. The Government will no doubt remind people in Hong Kong and overseas that the majority of people who made representations on this issue were opposed to changing the law, including not only the rich and powerful, like the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, but also the Tai Po Children's Choir.
But if government officials think the dust has settled and their problems are now over, then they are, in the words of Chinese President Jiang Zemin in another context, 'naive'. Their real headache has only now begun.
Those who heard the speeches in the Legislative Council or read press reports of them would have been able to see the weaknesses and fallacies of many of the arguments of the Secretary for Security and the Secretary for Justice, and their supporters.
The fundamental weakness in the Government's case lies in its inability to show, by convincing evidence, that the requirement of a seven-day prior notice to the police of the organiser's intention to hold a public meeting of more than 50 persons or a public procession of more than 30 people, and the maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment for any offender, are both necessary and not disproportionate.
Hong Kong people know from experience that public demonstrations here are peaceful and orderly, and we do not have militants or extremists like the Irish Republican Army or the Ku Klux Klan. Many of our people participated in the massive processions in May and June 1989. A million people marched from Chater Garden through the narrow streets of Wan Chai to outside the then New China News Agency in Happy Valley, on both May 21 and May 28, 1989, at the time of the student protests in Tiananmen - without any incident whatsoever.
The Secretary for Security therefore felt obliged to give two examples to justify the present restrictions contained in the ordinance: the first was the tragedy at Lan Kwai Fong on New Year's Day 1993, when 21 people were crushed to death as huge crowds there went out of control; the second example was the riots in Seattle during a meeting of the World Trade Organisation in November last year and the civil disturbances during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in Melbourne in September this year, both caused by militant non-governmental organisations from other countries.
Since these were the only examples the Government could give to justify retention of the existing restrictions, the Government stands a very poor chance of being able to uphold the ordinance in any court of law where the controversial section 17A is challenged.
The Lan Kwai Fong tragedy had absolutely nothing to do with any public meeting or public procession. To cite this was a bad example of fear-mongering by the Government. As for the riots in Seattle and Melbourne, it is clear the organisers of these riots wanted publicity in the international media. If they should ever come to Hong Kong to 'create trouble' when we host any international conference in future, they would not give the seven-day prior notice to our police, nor would they be deterred by the penalty of five years' imprisonment. And they would have to be dealt with by other laws in our statute books.
But, with the greatest respect for the Secretary for Security, why should the likely violent behaviour of these militant foreign groups who might or might not come to Hong Kong in future justify the unnecessary and excessive restrictions on the freedom of assembly and demonstration of our 6.5 million people in Hong Kong?
It should not, therefore, surprise anyone that the United Nations Human Rights Committee in its November 4, 1999, report has called upon the Hong Kong Government to amend the ordinance to comply with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.
For the moment, the Government has won a battle. But the war goes on. Student leaders in some of our universities have already vowed to continue with their acts of civil disobedience.
Hence the headache for the Government: will the police arrest them? Will the Department of Justice prosecute them? Or will the Government or the central Government's Liaison Office in Hong Kong orchestrate their support groups to stage counter-demonstrations?
Perhaps our Government will wait for the next report from the UN Human Rights Committee, or the Chief Executive will seek another reinterpretation of the Basic Law from Beijing if our courts should strike down section 17A of the Public Order Ordinance.
Or will our Government do the only right and honourable thing by amending section 17A?