Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

Democracy is the Number One Human Rights Issue

The human rights debate in Hong Kong has changed out of recognition over the last 18 months.

Before the Handover, the big issue was whether Hong Kong's existing freedoms would survive. It is easy to forget now how real those fears were. In the months before the Handover, Qian Qichen said that newspapers in Hong Kong would be allowed to report facts but not engage in advocacy. Lu Ping said that advocating independence for Taiwan or Tibet would not be allowed. Jiang Ze Min himself said that he did not understand why people said that the rule of law was important for Hong Kong's success. As chairman of Human Rights Monitor, I was warned by both democrats and pro-Beijing activists that I should leave Hong Kong before the Handover or I would be imprisoned. I thought those predictions were exaggerated at the time, but neither I nor almost any commentator predicted the extent to which life as we knew it before the Handover has continued with little change.

Of course, this does not mean that our freedoms can now be taken for granted. They continue to exist because of deliberate policy decisions by Beijing. Those policy decisions could be reversed at any time. However, because it's clearly in Beijing's interest for Hong Kong to remain stable, both as a source of economic strength and as an inducement to Taiwan to resume closer links, there is no reason to expect a clampdown on freedoms here in the near future.

In the short-term, there may be more danger to Hong Kong's traditional way of life from short-sighted and narrow-minded policy changes by the SAR Government than from the Central People's Government. When Audrey Eu, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association and a staunch defender of freedom, visited Beijing recently, she commented on return that she found officials there better informed and more flexible than officials of the SAR Government.

Part of the reason for this relates to one real change which has occurred in Hong Kong since the Handover, which is to the culture of the territory's Government. Mr Tung, as a businessman turned official, with limited experience of public life before his appointment, is dramatically different in both style and substance from Mr Patten, who, in contrast, was a highly successful democratic politician before he came to Hong Kong. Those who focused on the fact that Patten came to Hong Kong after losing his seat in the British Parliament missed the point that he lost it only because he devoted his energies to organising his party's national campaign, which he did so successfully that it won an election which it was widely expected to lose. His sure sense of the public mood and his ability to say things which many people were thinking but had not found a way to express, are part of the reason why he remains so popular here. Mr Tung, in contrast, does not have this sure touch. Not only is he ill at ease with the media, he also shows a lack of imagination and a rather rigid and old-fashioned outlook on many questions. This, in turn, affects both the morale of the Civil Service and its ability to deal with difficult and sensitive issues.

Mr Tung and Mr Patten were both appointed to their jobs, but Mr Patten was appointed by a democratic Government, so that his actions were ultimately subject to Government, which is the world's last great dictatorship. Appointed officials are accountable essentially to those who appoint them. Democratic politicians in contrast must respond to the public mood, or they will be swept aside by more responsive opponents. This does not mean that democratic politicians cannot take hard decisions. In both Thailand and South Korea, the people have rallied round democratic political leaders trying to tackle the results of the Asian economic crisis. It does mean, however, that those leaders must have the political skill and the credibility to carry the community with them.

In Hong Kong, the democratic leaders who repeatedly show, in election after election, that they have understood the public mood by gaining a large majority of the popular vote, are shut out of power, for democracy is the one basic human right which Hong Kong lacks.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that every citizen shall have the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections by universal and equal suffrage. The United Nations has condemned the Hong Kong electoral arrangements as a flagrant violation of Article 25. The Hong Kong Government brazenly ignores this condemnation and continues to encourage a system which gives votes to companies and allows property tycoons to buy votes in tiny mini-constituencies by purchasing off the shelf companies just for that purpose.

Opponents of democracy regularly claim that it is unsuitable for Hong Kong, or that Hong Kong is "not ready" for it. This is racist and insulting. Taiwan is a Chinese society which is a flourishing democracy. It has gained great respect in the world by its transition to democracy, and has grown wealthier at the same time. Hong Kong is almost the only advanced society in the world which is not already a democracy. As in every advanced society, people expect to have a say over who governs them. That is why Wei Jing Sheng called democracy "The Fifth Modernisation" Hong Kong is futuristic in its advanced architecture, its massive engineering projects, and its financial and business skills, but in its political development it is stuck in an archaic colonial time-warp.

There are other important human rights issues in Hong Kong. Continuing cases of police torture of suspects (for which 4 police officers went to jail recently), the lack of proper police accountability, and the lack of a law to stop bars from charging people more if they have a yellow face than if they have a white face, are all important matters. But they are secondary to the issue of democracy. Unless the democratic deficit is put right other things must get worse, for all power tends to corrupt, and those whose power is not subject to the constraints of periodic elections are inevitably corrupted. That is why democracy is the number one human rights issue for the coming year.

Paul Harris

1998 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor