Not everyone taking to the streets is protesting war with Iraq. For Hong Kong residents, the threat to liberty is closer at hand.
Late this month, Hong Kong activists plan to renew street protests over a proposed law that may stifle free speech and other basic liberties. Already tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters have joined rallies held regularly since last December when Article 23, a slate of laws on basic rights, first drew widespread attention. The protesters have blocked high-noon traffic in the financial districts of Hong Kong Island with choruses of "We Shall Overcome." They have paced before the Legislative Council chambers in silence-mouths taped shut in a symbolic gesture of what they fear will happen once Article 23 is approved. Protesters say the bill will limit rather than legalize their freedoms.
Protest groups are particularly upset with the way the bill is coming down. Beijing's communist leadership played a heavy role in drafting Article 23 language, as opposed to Hong Kong's own Legislative Council. For that reason, 20 of 60 Council members protested first readings of the bill by walking out of sessions where it was read and burning copies in the square outside Council chambers.
Despite efforts by lawmakers to reform its language, and a well-organized citizen protest movement, the bill presently leaves open the possibility that Chinese authorities could ban certain organizations from Hong Kong. They include human-rights organizations and political watchdogs, as well as faith-based groups, many run by Christians, and some with a 150-year-old history of free speech in the former British colony.
"It will bring China's restrictions on free thinking and speech to Hong Kong, and thereby nullify the original design of 'one country, two systems,'" said Jonathan Chao, president of China Ministries International and of the Chinese Church Research Center in Hong Kong. "Any speech or opinion that is not supportive of China's various policies could be interpreted as 'rebellious' or even 'treason.'"
Hong Kong won a smooth transition from colonial rule in 1997 when the mainland regime promised "one country, two systems." Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region under Beijing but with autonomous governing bodies pledged to continue Western democratic freedoms. The law, if passed, promises instead sweeping changes more likely to make the two systems one.
Since the handover, Beijing has applied increasing pressure to Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the country's leading government officer, to implement Article 23 of Hong Kong's constitution, known officially as the Basic Law. Article 23 requires the Legislative Council to make laws against "treason, sedition, secession, and subversion." Protesters say the laws already on the books in Hong Kong sufficiently fulfill the requirements of Article 23. The bill now before the Legislative Council criminalizes a broad range of offenses grouped into these four categories. Further, it gives the government new authority to prosecute "theft of state secrets," to outlaw political organizations with ties to foreign groups, and to outlaw organizations "endangering national security." That means the legislation would ban Hong Kong groups that receive funds, direction, or leadership from a group outlawed by Beijing.
Hong Kong residents know too well how Beijing uses similar legalese to squelch fundamental freedoms. In the mainland, Christians who worship in unregistered house churches, Tibetans and other minorities, Falun Gong adherents, and more recently Internet activists have been charged under similarly worded anti-subversion laws.
In one case prosecuted in January, Wang Bingzhang was sentenced to life in prison for stealing "state secrets." Mr. Wang, a 20-year U.S. resident who founded the Chinese Alliance for Democracy in New York and the dissident magazine China Spring, disappeared at the China-Vietnam border last year. He was missing for six months before officials claimed to have arrested him in southern China in December. His closed-door trial took place in Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong to the north.
In December Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner gave Chinese officials a list of 298 prisoners the Bush administration believes are political prisoners. All, like Mr. Wang, are being held in the mainland on anti-subversion-related charges. Hong Kong residents believe the same can happen to them if Article 23 is enacted.
According to polls, 80 percent of Hong Kong residents oppose the current draft. It has opponents overseas, too. December demonstrations, Hong Kong's largest since 1989, provoked simultaneous protests in ethnic Chinese communities from Sydney to Los Angeles to Toronto to Dresden.
British officials, along with the U.S. State Department, are voicing cautious concern about the drafts. International human-rights monitors issued their own criticism. The Basic Law proposals, according to a statement from Amnesty International, "go far beyond what is needed to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law and may increase restrictions on fundamental human rights.... There is a danger that those exercising these rights could be imprisoned as prisoners of conscience."
The show of concern seems to double resolve in Beijing. Speaking at a press conference March 6 for the National People's Congress, the first under new Communist Party Leader Hu Jintao, Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan defended Article 23 this way: "It is common practice for all countries to make law [sic] to prohibit criminal activities which endanger national security and unity." He also warned, "Outsiders shouldn't make irresponsible remarks on it."
Although the National People's Congress will have the final word on Article 23, protest groups aren't giving up. Over 1,000 trade unions, democracy parties, journalists, faith-based groups, and social activists, including homosexual-rights groups, organized under the banner Civil Human Rights Front. They are planning late March protests and staging write-in campaigns, according to Human Rights in China spokesman Nicolas Becquelin. Support also comes from the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Law Society of Hong Kong.
Catholics make up a little less than 5 percent of Hong Kong's population, but the Roman Catholic bishop, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, has become a celebrity for his stand on Article 23. He topped polls by Hong Kong's leading Chinese- and English-language dailies for most important city figure of 2002. "The church supports peace. But they really angered us and a lot of others. The lack of sincerity on the part of the government is disgraceful," he said.
The 70-year-old Mr. Zen is a newcomer to his office (appointed six months ago by the Vatican) but not to controversy. He is a native of Shanghai but was banned from the mainland in 1998 for support of China's underground Catholic church. Mr. Zen warns that Hong Kong could gradually lose freedoms and become like cities in mainland China: "An unjust situation made stable by oppressive structures is not peace but a state of violence."
He galvanized opponents of Article 23 when he publicly debated Secretary of Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the government's point person on the legislation. During a statutory comment period, the Security Bureau received 97,000 comments. But thousands of those comments were excluded from the public record, including those of Mr. Zen. Security Bureau officers said they lost some due to computer glitches and ruled others unacceptable. The Security Bureau ruled comments of the Democratic Party, a leading opponent of Article 23, as neither supportive nor opposing.
Non-Catholic church leaders identify with Mr. Zen's views. "I have the same concerns as Bishop Zen," Mr. Chao told WORLD. Protestant Christians in Hong Kong date back to the mid-19th century. Hong Kong churchgoers now number roughly 260,000 in 1,200 congregations. Their reach into the city of 7 million is deep: Churches and affiliated organizations operate more than 300 primary and secondary schools, dozens of hospitals and medical clinics, 100 centers for the elderly, 15 camps, and other varied social-service organizations. Many rely on overseas funding and worry that, with or without ties in mainland China, their work will be regarded as suspect under Article 23.
Christian organizations already perform a balancing act, avoiding outright criticism of Beijing policies even as they work to encourage religious activity in the mainland. Yin and yang in Hong Kong is more and more about who's pulling the strings, however. The peninsula, for most an icon of freewheeling commerce, has long proved itself capable of managing its own equilibrium. With handover to China, increasingly the strings are pulled in Beijing.