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PROPOSED ANTI-SUBVERSION LEGISLATION THREATENS FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN HONG KONG




NOT IN OLD HONG KONG


Newsday (New York, NY)
November 24, 2002
Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.

By A. Lin Neumann.


In many ways Hong Kong looks as good as ever. The soaring Bank of China building and its many gleaming neighbors in Central, the downtown business hub, still have the air of cocky optimism that built this former colony into an economic powerhouse and the freest Chinese city in the world. The streets are jammed with well-dressed office workers, the subway is crowded and yuppies belly up to the overpriced bars and fill the streets of the trendy Lan Kwai Fong district.

Beneath the famous glitz and glamour, though, Hong Kong is anything but the city it once was. The economy is in a protracted slump, unemployment is near record highs, factories are moving to mainland China, and there is growing pressure on the government to devalue the currency's peg to the U.S. dollar to make prices more competitive with the region.

But beneath the figures, something more ominous is under way: The territory's famous civil liberties are under assault. Nothing makes that fact plainer than the recent proposal by Hong Kong's appointed rulers of sedition and security regulations that threaten to undermine the territory's tradition of vibrant free expression. These call for severe penalties for a range of national security "offenses," such as discussing, or reporting on discussions of, Taiwanese independence or publishing unauthorized information.

Just five years after sovereignty was transferred from Great Britain to Beijing, the ruling elites here are showing no gumption to stand up to China or conservative local forces eager to curry favor with the mainland. Under the principle of "one-country-two-systems," Hong Kong was supposed to be free of rule by fiat. But these regulations are expected to pass the mostly appointed legislature after a pro-forma period of public discussion that ends next month.

Already, journalists face pressure inside newsrooms to censor themselves on a range of topics, from aggressively covering some local tycoons to weighing in on sensitive issues involving China. "It is not that anyone says you can't do something," said one senior reporter. "It is that the rules are well known. We control ourselves."

"It's a matter of business," said another reporter. "Everyone is drooling after the China market, and the wealthy owners of our newspapers are no different. They don't want to offend."

The tone was set in 2000, when China's leader Jiang Zemin blew up at a Hong Kong reporter at a press conference: "I'm addressing you as an elder. I'm not a reporter. But I have seen too much and it's necessary to tell you: In reporting, if there are errors you must be responsible."

The same year Wang Fengchao, a mainland official in Hong Kong, said that Hong Kong media should not be allowed to report on Taiwanese or Tibetan independence, even though Beijing has no constitutional right to interfere in Hong Kong's policies. Willy Lam, the South China Morning Post's respected China editor, was dismissed, many suspect for his long-standing reportage on inside moves among China's leaders. In 2001, Jasper Becker, the paper's seasoned Beijing correspondent, was also fired.

The new regulations that threaten to codify timidity are rooted in Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs Hong Kong. Drawn up by the National People's Congress in Beijing 10 months after the Tiananmen Square uprising, Article 23 calls for special penalties for crimes against the state. The Hong Kong authorities were left to come up with precise language and postponed doing so immediately after the 1997 handover; it would have been too much for investors and the public.

Laws already exist that could apply to real cases of sedition or treason. Article 23 is something else: political legislation designed to send a political message. Everyone here knows that trumped-up charges of hindering state security or harming national interests have been used repeatedly in China to imprison journalists whose reporting challenges political taboos.

The assurances meted out by government authorities, say, in essence, trust us, we're the good guys. "The proposals . . . will not have any adverse impact on freedom of expression, or freedom of the press, as they are currently enjoyed," Security Secretary Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee wrote in the Asian Wall Street Journal. More recently, the hard-line Ip said that democracy was overrated. Her evidence: the election of Adolf Hitler as German chancellor in 1933.

Jimmy Lai, the outspoken and hard-charging publisher of Hong Kong's number two daily newspaper, Apple Daily, recently expanded his publishing business to Taiwan as a hedge against what he sees as the inevitable contraction of the democratic space in Hong Kong.

"I think the economic climate is making people ambivalent to self-censorship," Lai said. "If five or six years ago the government wanted to pass Article 23, the whole society would make noise against it. But now . . . people are worried about their jobs."

There is a threat, too, for the rest of the region, which has long depended on Hong Kong's free press to understand China. Vital dissident voices still use Hong Kong as a platform to freely discuss ideas banned in China. Will those voices be silenced?

Implementing Article 23 only will serve to remind Hong Kong, if any reminder were still needed, that Beijing calls the shots. The shining office towers may endure, but something less tangible but even more important could be lost: part of Hong Kong's independent spirit.

A Lin Neumann is the Asia consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is based in Bangkok

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ARTICLE 23 THREATENS AN UNFETTERED, PROUD, AND LIVELY PRESS

by A. Lin Neumann


South China Morning Post
Thursday, October 10, 2002

Don't do it, Hong Kong. Don't let the world down by putting on the books legislation implementing Article 23 of the Basic Law. Setting out special criminal penalties for acts of treason, secession, subversion or sedition only risks further eroding civil liberties. Hong Kong is too important, its free-press tradition too vibrant, to risk the consequences of passing this legislation.

Drawn up by the National People's Congress in Beijing just 10 months after the Tiananmen Square uprising was crushed, the Basic Law was flawed from the beginning by Article 23, which seemed always to have been conceived in anger at the open support given by Hong Kong people -- including editorial support in the press -- to the democracy movement of 1989.

The leaders in Beijing were smart enough not to insist on implementing Article 23 immediately after the 1997 handover, but now the time has come, one supposes, to pay the piper.

Thus far, the assurances offered by government authorities over the implementation of Article 23 say, in essence, trust us - we are good guys.

''The proposals we have put forward will not have any adverse impact on freedom of expression, or freedom of the press, as they are currently enjoyed,'' Security Secretary Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee told readers of the Asian Wall Street Journal recently. ''We share a common goal with the citizens of Hong Kong and our international supporters to preserve the freedom of expression in Hong Kong.''

In the pages of this newspaper, Solicitor-General Robert Allcock told readers: ''Freedom of expression will continue to be fully enjoyed in Hong Kong.'' The only exceptions, he noted, would be inciting violence against the mainland during a time of war. Nothing to be concerned about, he said, for most people in Hong Kong.

Such words offer little comfort to anyone who cares about the future of a free press, given the sad history of national security legislation in other countries. In Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, similar laws have been used as a threat and a weapon against the media. Cuba makes full use of national security laws to rein in the press. Countries like Ghana, Zimbabwe and Kenya imprison journalists with such legislation. Pakistan and Bangladesh have used these laws repeatedly to crack the whip on the media. Is this a club Hong Kong wants to join?

Further, given that the territory's senior official, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, is hand-picked by Beijing with not even a pretence of participatorydemocracy, it is all the more important that the press in Hong Kong remains unfettered, proud and lively. It is the only check the territory has to balance Beijing's interests.

This is not about the fine points. The wrangling over the consultation paper implementing Article 23 of the Basic Law should be left to the legal experts of Hong Kong, of which there are many on all sides of the issue. It is the broad strokes of the proposed legislation that worry me. A clear and unmistakable message is being sent: Beijing is tightening the screws.

For years now, even before the 1997 handover, journalists in Hong Kong have said that their newsrooms have become less free. They say they often feel the need to self-censor in response to a variety of commercial and political pressures, most of which are unspoken.

Now something far more ominous is on the horizon. In matters of so-called national security, the crucial arbiter will not be Hong Kong or Hong Kong people. It will be Beijing.

If China, many of whose courageous journalists are already pushing the envelope of acceptable behaviour, allows its citizens the freedoms due a nation of such tremendous power and influence, then the future will bode well for the Hong Kong media.
But if the narrow interests in Beijing who censor the Internet, control all media outlets and imprison more journalists than any other country in the world hold sway, then Hong Kong's future is bleak.

Trumped up charges of hindering state security or harming national interests have been used repeatedly in China to harass and arrest journalists. The Chinese government routinely misuses charges of subversion and revealing state secrets to imprison journalists whose reporting challenges political taboos. If similar laws are passed in Hong Kong, the heat will be on here too.
In the end it is the climate of fear and restriction that such legislation will create that will further rein in the press. Of course, few would expect the police to come barging into the newsrooms of the remaining independent newspapers here, brandishing subversion legislation against outspoken columnists.

The point is far more subtle, but no less worrisome. Implementing Article 23 will only serve to remind Hong Kong, if any reminder was still needed, that Beijing calls the shots. This is not Hong Kong legislation. This is legislation that goes against the spirit of Hong Kong. No one questions Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong, but the territory's greatness has been its separate character, its outspoken zeal to challenge and improve the life of its people. A key part of that vitality has been the free press and this legislation, if passed, seems certain to do permanent damage to the Hong Kong media spirit.

A. Lin Neumann is the Asia Consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He is based in Bangkok.

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