Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

Human Rights in Hong Kong

All the present alarm and uncertainty surrounding Hong Kong's return to China can be summarised in a single date. June 4th 1989. But for that, most Hong Kong Chinese would be counting the days to reunification with the motherland, and the end of British colonialism.

Sadly, the events which took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing sent several key accords of the Joint Declaration crashing to the floor. Until then, Britain and China had taken a relaxed attitude to the complex questions still to be resolved regarding Hong Kong's autonomy after its return to China on July 1st 1997. The negotiators felt they could reach common ground by goodwill, discussion and compromise as time went on.

No-one could foresee in 1984, when the document was signed, that another chapter would be added to China's long and terrible sufferings. Once the Tiananmen tragedy happened, however, the British decided that the colony they had ruled for almost 150 years required extra safeguards, to protect the important freedoms the people valued and wished to retain as citizens of the Special Administrative Region of China.

One of the first moves to restore confidence in Hong Kong was to provide a Bill of Rights. Britain was already a signatory to an United Nations treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guaranteed basic human rights, and China had agreed in Article 39 of their own document, the Basic Law, that this and other United Nations Covenants should remain in force after 1997.

The Bill was therefore merely an extra safeguard, to protect what already existed. It was a way of bringing the Covenant and the recognized rights together in one document of domestic law. The move had universal support in Hong Kong, and subject to some amendments, was passed by the Legislative Council on 6th June, 1991.

The Chinese government, however, does not accept the Bill. Their view is that the Basic Law already endorses the UN Covenants, and when the Hong Kong government amended laws after signing the Joint Declaration they broke the spirit and letter of the agreement. Through their puppet organisation, the deeply unpopular Preliminary Working Committee, Beijing pressed for repeal of the Bill after July 1997.

They also declared an intention to restore six repressive colonial laws which had long fallen into disuse, but which after several deplorable delays were not repealed or amended until 1991. These involved restrictions and constraints on such elementary liberties as free speech, freedom of the media, the right of assembly and the right to join organisations.

The public dismay this caused, escalated when the Chief Justice of Hong Kong, Sir Ti Liang-yang, became embroiled in the controversy. Though it is axiomatic in a democracy that the judiciary is apolitical, Sir Ti inadvisedly expressed his personal views on the subject at a dinner party attended by Chinese officials. His impression was that the Bill would add another layer to Hong Kong's judicial system, and confuse the issue, making it difficult for judges to know which law to apply.

Legal experts were even more perplexed - though not at the status of the Bill, which unequivocally takes precedence over previous legislation. They were bemused by the inability of Hong Kong's chief law officer to understand this, while many ordinary people in Hong Kong were alarmed by his lack of discretion in discussing such a politically sensitive subject in that particular setting.

Sir Ti has emerged as a contestant for the post of Chief Executive of the SAR, and resigned his judicial role. It will fall to his successor to interpret the law in Hong Kong, and it is hoped that whoever fills the role will understand the Bill, and its primacy. There is, however, another obstacle to China's promise of "one country, two systems." This is Article 23 of the Basic Law which allows the SAR government to enact extra laws to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, and subversion.

These offences have an extremely wide interpretation on the mainland, where one journalist working for a Hong Kong newspaper is serving a jail sentence for publishing state secrets, which were, in fact, statistics already reported by other newspaper. The article used the figures to denounce aspects of macro economics in China, and this "crime," has cost the writer 12 years of liberty. In view of this, the thought of what a puppet legislature may be called upon to do under the auspices of Article 23, keeps a raw edge on Hong Kong's nerves.

>From time to time, Lu Ping the Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office has made an effort to reassure people about the future, but many of his statements tend to be contradictory and unreliable.

According to him, life in Hong Kong after 1997 will be considerably better: with China benignly bestowing greater democracy, wider freedom of the press, increased prosperity. The reality is that the present Legislative Council, elected to a four year term of office in Autumn 1995, will be disbanded as soon as the five starred flag is raised, and a Beijing appointed assembly will be put in its place.

Lu Ping explained his concept of press freedom recently by saying a newspaper could report on Taiwan moves toward independence in their news columns, but would have breached acceptable standards if they expressed support for it in an editorial. So much for greater democracy and wider freedom of the press.

The general feeling in Hong Kong is that actions speak louder than words. For all the changes taking place on the mainland, China remains a totalitarian regime, which represses debate and demonstration among the ordinary people. Much has altered since Deng Xiaoping's open door policy, but, as the French say "the more things change, the more they are the same." China cannot accept that political dissent may be a healthy, rather than a hostile act, which can make a positive contribution to a country's development and prosperity. They have no experience of protest as a safety valve, ensuring greater political stability, rather than threatening it.

Even more disturbing, is the inability of the current leadership to see that the vigour and wellbeing of Hong Kong society is based on individual freedoms, tailored to the good of the whole, and enshrined in the rule of law. President Jiang Zemin, in a September interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, attributed Hong Kong's dynamic, free and flourishing society to the enterprise of her people, plus support from the mainland.

In a private interview with a very highly placed Hong Kong banker earlier in the year, Jiang volunteered the information that he did not understand the importance of the rule of law. Since the law in China is a tool of the State, and those in power are beyond its authority, that is perhaps not surprising. In present day Hong Kong, where everyone has equal legal status, it is the law which rules the land. The government is just as accountable to it, and as bound by it, as the man in the street. This tenet is the crucial safeguard against the abuse of power, despotism, tyranny and corruption.

To become subject to a leader who cannot understand the concept is an extremely daunting prospect, but there is, fortunately, reason for optimism. China is changing, albeit slowly and erratically. An olive branch has been tendered to the Democrats, and may signal a change in Beijing's approach to Hong Kong. The Politburo has announced that leftism has no place in their approach to Hong Kong or Taiwan. This is encouraging, but has to be treated with caution until the policy is seen in action.

The future cannot even be guessed at until the provisional legislature is appointed, and we see what it is called upon to do. Until the first newspaper article is written which criticise mainland policy, and the first protest march makes its way through Central, no one can predict how true China means to be to its promises. Its past record is not encouraging, but if Hong Kong has the will to fight for the rights that China promised it, then all may be well.

But it must be an united stand. As Benjamin Franklin said, those who will sacrifice individual liberty in return for personal safety deserve to have neither.

1996/1997 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor