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2002-10-4 South China Morning Post

Proposed anti-subversion law is no piece of fiction for Hong Kong 

Albert Cheng King-ho (broadcaster and publisher)



In the eyes of officials in charge of security, the public is incapable of intelligent debate. Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee obviously thinks so. And so does acting Permanent Secretary for Security Timothy Tong Hin-ming.


The government has decided not to let Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie, who has a low popularity rating, lead the campaign. Instead, Mrs Ip has assumed the role of chief spokesperson and is confident of getting the public to accept the Article 23 proposals.


Initially, she excelled in her public relations battles. But apparently dizzy with success, Mrs Ip appeared arrogant when she took the government's case to Legco three days after the consultation document was released.


She said she remained unconvinced there was a need for a so-called ''white bill'' for further public debate, before presenting a blue bill to initiate the legislative process. ''Will taxi drivers, Chinese restaurant waiters, service staff at McDonald's hold a copy [of the white bill] to debate with me article by article? In the final analysis, pragmatically speaking, only experts will read the bill,'' she said. Her remarks were full of bigotry. The implementation of Article 23 will affect everybody. Public participation and public opinion must be respected. Even if a member of the working class does not bother to confront Mrs Ip with a copy of the white bill line by line, it does not mean they should be denied the right to do so. Hong Kong is not known for its democracy. And it will be the end of what remains of it, if policy-makers start to dismiss as irrelevant the public's right to participate.


Mr Tong, on the other hand, appeared in RTHK's City Forum last Sunday. Instead of conducting a sensible discussion, he referred to Louis Cha Leung-yung's 1972 kung fu novel, The Deer and the Cauldron. Mr Tong cited the case of the book's rebellious group, Heaven and Earth Society, and imagined how it would be treated under the proposed law. He created the impression of having to resort to such an extraneous analogy because the public was unable to follow his substantive points. It was an insult to the public's intelligence.


Meanwhile, only the democratic camp took officials to task at the Legco session. In contrast, the Liberal Party, the Hong Kong Progressive Alliance, the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, and the so-called Breakfast Group, all remained silent. It is a major dereliction of their duties as elected representatives of the people.


The current consultation document is only an outline of the legal concepts and principles. It is in essence a waste of time. It is hardly controversial that provisions are needed to protect the sovereign state from treason, sedition and secession. The real worry centres on whether the future law will contain any unreasonable intrusion into civil liberties. Until and unless the exact wording of the bill is available, there is no way to tell whether there are any traps and loopholes. That is why the Democratic Party has demanded a white bill be prepared for consultation after the current three-month discussion on the concepts and broad principles. To take a step back, there are several major shortfalls even with the current vague consultation document.


First, sections 7.15 and 7.16 of the paper assert that: ''The HKSAR may not be in a position to determine whether an organisation poses a threat to national security ... Therefore ... we should defer to the decision of the central authorities based on the comprehensive information that it possesses.'' This is a clear extension of mainland legal measures into our system. Given the mainland track record, there are reasons to be alarmed.


Second, sections 4.16 to 4.18 recommend that ''if someone prints a publication for some other reasons, such as profit, while being fully aware that the publication would incite offences that endanger national security, we believe that such dealings should also be suitably regarded as criminal acts.'' Here, it is unfair to put the onus on a person to distinguish what publications are likely to endanger national security. This may turn out to be a threat to freedom of expression.


Third, Section 2.14 states that misprision of treason is ''committed when a person knows that another person has committed treason but omits to disclose this to the proper authority within a reasonable time. In view of the possible severe consequences of such suppression of information to national security and to provide for more certainty as regards what constitutes the `proper authority', we propose to make misprision of treason a statutory offence''. During the Cultural Revolution, street committees were organised to spy on neighbours. A similar intrusive culture might start to take root in Hong Kong.


If the authorities are sincere about consulting the public, a white bill should be issued as soon as possible to ensure that the public can have a proper chance to comment on the many issues arising from the present general consultation document. The matter is so crucial that it should not be decided by a few aloof bureaucrats.