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Repression made in China

International | While they still can, citizens are fighting a new bill of "rights" Beijing seeks to impose on the Legislative Council; it amounts, as the local Catholic bishop puts it, to injustice stabilized by oppression

Issue: "Truth or CAIR," March 22, 2003

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.

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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."

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