July 1, 2003
Hong Kong Freedoms Under Attack
by Donald G. Mashburn

Passengers arriving in Hong Kong on the famous Star Ferry, from Kowloon and other points, have long been cheered on Sunday afternoons by brightly-clad, guitar strumming young Christians singing hymns, and happily telling passersby about the Christ of their salvation.

They considerately gather to one side of the broad walkway leading from the ferry to the hurly-burley of Hong Kong’s Central District. Some come from local churches, and some from as far away as the Philippines, gathering to share their joy, and to publicly support Hong Kong’s Christian community.

In particular, they encourage local churches that are worried that religion soon may be illegal in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

The reason for their fears – shared by many of the region’s estimated 8 million citizens – is a new “national security” law that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is set to pass July 9.

The proposed security law is opposed by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which calls it a “threat to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and the press.”

What upsets Hong Kongers is a change to Article 23 of the Basic Law, the “mini-Constitution” that governs citizens of the HKSAR. Article 23 was incorporated into the Basic Law during China’s heavy-handed suppression of freedoms following the Tiananmen Square uprising. So it’s not surprising that the new law threatens basic freedoms of citizens.

Of particular concern is the vague wording of Article 23. Under the revised mini-Constitution, subversion could be any action intended to “disestablish the basic system of the People’s Republic of China.” The AHRC states that the document is so “ill-defined” that “offenses of treason ... and subversion are referred to with an ambiguity that would allow the government to use the law ... to deny, rather than protect, people’s rights.”

Those who recall the dark days of Communist suppression in the Soviet Union, will remember how independent thought – religious thought, in particular – could be deemed to be “anti-State,” or “destabilizing to society.”

It could also win the thinker a sudden, one-way trip to the Soviet Union’s feared forced labor camps.

While citizens of Hong Kong aren’t particularly religious, they are accustomed to a religious tolerance that welcomes Christian teachers and singing groups traveling from other nations. Churches are also permitted to hold revivals or crusades.

The new law may change that. Under Article 23’s vague definitions, reporters and publishers could be jailed for news deemed to be “destabilizing,” or unfavorable to the government. Worse, the new legislation allows the government to hold an accused offender in prison for seven years without a trial.

Pro-democracy delegates from the HKSAR visited Washington, hoping to gain government help in convincing China to drop plans to implement the new law. But with the fight against terrorism and the Iraqi situation, the delegates reportedly didn’t get even a cool reception.

The United States struck forceful blows for freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq, where freedom was unknown for decades. But it appears the freedoms long taken for granted in Hong Kong may disappear with little notice. It is hoped the United States will convey to China our concerns for human rights in Hong Kong.

The agreement that returned Hong Kong and other territories to China July 1, 1997, called for China to follow a “hands off” policy for 50 years. But after only six years, it seems the Communist government has trouble with the concept of freedom of religion and speech.

The new “security law” may make basic human rights mere memories in Hong Kong. The loss will be underscored by the silence along the walkway in Central, where visitors leaving the Star Ferry no longer will be greeted by guitar-strumming gospel singers, faces beaming with the Good News.

Absent, too, will be the happy faces of Christians who, having discovered the Ultimate Freedom, want to tell others about it in word and in song, in a peaceful way.