July 21, 2003

Freedom Wins in Hong Kong
by Donald G. Mashburn

Freedom racked up a rare victory on Communist soil in, of all places, Hong Kong. The flickering flame of freedom brightened substantially when Hong Kong’s puppet government announced that it would delay the implementation of the controversial and dangerous Article 23 of the Basic Law.

The Basic Law is the “mini-Constitution” that governs citizens of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). Article 23, with its broad definitions of sedition, would have threatened the basic rights of association, free speech, a free press, and religion.

Many among Hong Kong’s some 8-million people feared that the “security” law might even make religion illegal. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council scheduled the new law for a vote on July 9. Since the council is handpicked, approval appeared to be a done deal.

But 500,000 Hong Kongers thought otherwise. They took to the streets protesting the possible loss of basic freedoms. And, to the surprise of those familiar with China’s internal policies, the maximum leaders in Beijing heard the half million voices and shelved the anti-sedition law.

The victory may be temporary, but the remarkable fact is that a half million demonstrators got the attention of top Communist leaders in Beijing. The demonstrators’ courage shines brightly against the haunting images of the Tiananmen Square crackdown that crushed a bid for democracy in China.

The feared and controversial Article 23 was incorporated into the Basic Law during China’s heavy-handed suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprising. So it’s not surprising that the new law got the rapt attention of freedom-loving Hong Kongers.

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

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, remember how independent thought – religious thought, in particular – was selectively deemed to be “destabilizing” and “anti-State.”

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

The Hong Kong demonstrations weren’t driven by religious concerns. Hong Kongers aren’t known for being particularly religious, but they practice a religious tolerance that welcomes Christian teachers and singing groups traveling from other nations. Churches are also permitted to hold revivals and crusades. The new law probably would have changed that.

Moreover, under Article 23’s vague definitions, journalists could be jailed for news reports deemed to be “destabilizing,” or unfavorable to the government. Worse, under the law, an accused offender could be held in prison for up to seven years without a trial.

Earlier, pro-democracy delegates from the HKSAR visited Washington and tried to gain government help in convincing China to drop plans to implement the new law. But the delegates couldn’t even arrange a high-level meeting, much less gain official support.

With Beijing reversing its stand, it’s possible the United States gave back-channel support to Hong Kong’s freedom fighters. However, outward appearances suggest that the 500,000 Hong Kongers won the victory in the streets of their remarkable city. Thanks to their courage, it appears that freedom in Hong Kong won’t disappear without notice.

Nor will the happy faces of brightly-clad, guitar strumming, hymn singing young Christians, who cheer Sunday afternoons for passengers arriving in Hong Kong on the famous Star Ferry from Kowloon and other points.

The freedom they exhibit may be the most important one the half million Hong Kongers protected with their brave demonstrations in a Communist nation.