Freedom, rights tested in Hong Kong

Lawmakers this week proposed tough new national security laws on treason and sedition.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the British handed Hong Kong back to China more than five years ago, Asia's glittering economic hub was abuzz with talk of preserving its legal autonomy and open character.

But under pressure from Beijing to be loyal, and worried about its waning economic clout, Hong Kong's plucky independent spirit is being tested.

Days after city leaders proposed a tough new set of national security laws designed to combat "subversion," a range of religious, human rights, and media groups say they may dramatically change the freedom and rights enjoyed in the former British colony.

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Article 23 is "ultimately intended to shut down groups like mine," says Frank Lu, who runs the Information Center on Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China. "Slowly they are chipping away at anyone interested in democracy or dissenters."

In the past year, Hong Kong officials have tried to clarify what constitutes crimes against the state. The much anticipated Article 23 – worked out through invisible maneuvers between Hong Kong and Beijing – is considered a barometer of Hong Kong's autonomy under the "one country, two systems" policy dating to the 1997 handover.

To be adopted after a period of public consultation, Article 23 deals with treason, sedition, and illegal activities involving secession – a sensitive category given that Hong Kong is a center for pro-Taiwan and Tibet groups. But the city's appointed chief executive Tung Chee-hwa says it is "liberal and reasonable" and conforms with internationally recognized standards of security measures.

Hong Kong's autonomy has undergone a steady set of probes by Beijing this year. City leaders overruled a Hong Kong court's verdict on residency rights, siding with Beijing. This summer, activists with the Falun Gong spiritual movement were prosecuted in a Hong Kong court for the first time. Press freedoms have been "chilled," say local journalists.

Earlier this month the incoming Catholic leader of Hong Kong, Bishop Zen, broke with the church's long silence to say he was growing tired of a "toadying" political culture in Hong Kong that seemed always to bend to Beijing's will.

Critics say the new laws would significantly roll back basic rights, including freedom of expression, from common law standards under British rule and further endanger human rights groups and the Falun Gong.

The laws allow the banning of groups "affiliated" with mainland groups deemed a threat to China's national security. China has outlawed the Falun Gong, known here as an "evil cult," through a national propaganda campaign and a severe crackdown. It still exists, however, in Hong Kong.

Yet at second glance scholars find the antisedition laws more sweeping, and potentially more radical, than first realized. Police who suspect subversion are given power to search without a warrant, for example. Also, laws governing freedom of speech are vague on the question of incitement. Under the proposed law, for example, Hong Kong residents will be able to speak freely, so long as authorities deem that their speech is not intended to "incite" or be acted upon.

"If these laws are not tightly written," says constitutional scholar Michael Davis of Chinese University in Hong Kong, "it would not be difficult for any future government to put people in jail and prosecute them for [protest and political activity]."

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