HK citizens call impromptu referendum

HK citizens call impromptu referendum
By A. Lin Neumann

The Asian Times Online

July 8, 2003

When half a million people stage a protest march anywhere it is big news. When that many people march in a city of 6.8 million people that is formally a part of mainland China, as they did in Hong Kong on July 1, it amounts to something of a political revolution.

To top it off, the people in the streets seem to have won.

Denied real self-government when the former British colony was handed back to the motherland on July 1, 1997, the people of Hong Kong appear intent on seizing democracy for themselves – and their government has no real choice but to pay attention. No matter how Beijing fixes the game, democracy just won’t go away in Hong Kong.

The ostensible reason for last week’s stunning outpouring of public sentiment was to protest against the pending passage of Beijing-mandated national security legislation, required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution governing the territory under Chinese sovereignty and the principle of “one country, two systems”. The bill, critics fear, could lead to censorship of the press, prosecution for revealing “state secrets” and the erosion of cherished civil liberties.

The turnout against the legislation was so massive that even pro-Beijing government allies backed away from the bill, leaving the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government with no option but to cave in to public anger and delay passage. This should not have been so surprising.

The government brought this crisis upon itself. In unveiling its proposals for national-security legislation last September, it acted as if the bill was inevitable and public scrutiny a minor inconvenience. When challenged in the press on early versions, hardline Secretary for Security Regina Ip and other functionaries in essence took a “trust us” position, apparently assuming that their word should be sufficient to calm public concerns.

“The Hong Kong SAR government,” Ip wrote in the Asian Wall Street Journal in September, “is acutely aware that the free flow of information and expression of views is vital to our continued development as an international business and trading center. We have an unflinching intention to protect these rights and freedoms.”

In October, she even made the claim that a majority of Hong Kong people supported the anti-subversion legislation. No one was buying it and Hong Kong’s civil-society groups and pro-democracy legislators began mounting a systematic and highly effective local and international campaign to critique and delay it. Journalists, fearful of the impact of the legislation on their ability to work, filled op-ed pages with commentary on the bill and mounted public-education campaigns in tandem with the Hong Kong Bar Association and others to get the word out. Some Hong Kong publishers and businessmen even bankrolled anti-Article 23 activities.

But it all seemed pretty futile, to be honest, and the government was intent on passing the legislation by this month, come what may. Calls for a so-called “white paper” version of the bill that would have allowed for widespread public debate before the draft was finalized went ignored by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa & Co.

I spoke at a forum on Article 23 at Hong Kong University in mid-June and the reaction of the government to this event, organized by the Hong Kong Bar Association, seemed typical. Solicitor General Bob Alcock, one of the chief public faces of the legislation, showed up to listen to a morning of criticism from a panel of local and international experts.

When he finally rose to address the small audience, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “‘One country, two systems’ is very much in place and in most respects this bill is a liberalizing measure – and that’s a fact.” The statement was stunningly tone-deaf. This government simply could not understand why people fear the Article 23 legislation.

Ever since the 1997 handover to Beijing, Hong Kong has seemed to be heading in a downward spiral toward irrelevance and – if not outright repression – static caution in public debate and expression. Longtime Hong Kongers, both Chinese and European, often say, as one businessman friend of mine did last month, “We are just going to be a big port city on the Pearl River once Beijing is through with us. They are marching us toward mediocrity.”

Article 23, with its fear-tainted language, seemed another part of the strategy. What if journalists report on Falungong members in Hong Kong? Could that be illegal? Might it be illegal to report on stories about Beijing leaked out of the Hong Kong government? What does it mean to subvert the government, anyway? Will Hong Kong journalists and academics still be able to talk about Taiwanese or Tibetan independence? No one really knows, but few people are ready to take their leaders’ word that everything will be fine.

Given that Hong Kong does not have a democratic government, fear of coming repression seems reasonable. The legislature is dominated by pro-Beijing “functional” representatives elected by special interests whose voting power was engineered by China to outstrip the minority of directly elected lawmakers. Tung’s “re-election” last year to another five-year term was a bad joke. An 800-member Beijing-appointed electoral council made him the only nominee and then promptly voted him in with the kind of landslide that that only occurs in totalitarian countries.

Once he was re-upped for another term, practically his first act was to create a new layer of government ministers accountable only to him and, by extension, to the mainland.

Add to this dysfunctional and unrepresentative government, a slumping economy and the poorly managed SARS crisis, and you have a classic climate for a referendum on the government. Article 23 was the fuse and July 1 the perfect symbolic date.

In effect, Hong Kong has now voted with its feet, and Tung must face the consequences. When Liberal Party chairman James Tien, a Tung insider, resigned from the Executive Council over the weekend as a result of the flap over Article 23, the beleaguered chief executive seemed to have lost not just the Article 23 battle but his ability to rule.

This is a real pickle for Beijing. If China forces the legislation now, it stands a substantial chance of being defeated without the Liberal Party’s votes. If the legislation is materially altered, opened to real public debate and delayed as critics want, it will be a triumph for the democracy of the streets. All this in China. Imagine that.

A Lin Neumann is the Asia consultant to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved