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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Quarrel Over Rights

Beijing wants to restore some colonial laws

By Todd Crowell and Law Siu Lan / Hong Kong



(Jennifer Bowskill)

President FAN The interim body’s new chief will travel abroad in a bid to rally support

When China’s head of Hong Kong affairs visited the territory early last year, activist Leung Kwok Hung burned a tire to protest Beijing’s decision to disband the elected legislature, leaving a big black smudge on the driveway of the elegant Grand Hyatt Hotel. Last October, local pro-democracy advocates barged into the Japanese consulate, breaking the law, to show their unhappiness about Japan’s “resurgent militarism.” Those were about the most radical acts of civil disobedience in the territory in recent memory.

Hong Kong wasn’t always so orderly. Thirty years ago, it was plagued by China-backed riots. Local Communists and Kuomintang sympathizers clashed so often that they had to be segregated. The colonial authorities found useful two “temporary” laws: the Public Order Ordinance, which requires police permission for demonstrations, and the Societies Ordinance, which prohibits links with political organizations overseas. The “links” were then understood to refer to the Chinese Communist Party and its bitter rival, the KMT.

Passions have since cooled, and in the early 1990s the Legislative Council adopted a Bill of Rights and modified the two restrictive laws. But last week, the Preparatory Committee (PC), Beijing’s handover body for Hong Kong, recommended a watering down of the Bill of Rights and the reinstatement of the old ordinances. Many people are unhappy. “I’ve read the Basic Law [Hong Kong’s post-1997 constitution] again and again, and I cannot find how it is infringed” by the existing laws, said Allen Lee, leader of the frequently pro-Beijing Liberal Party and a member of the Hong Kong provisional legislature which will have to formulate new laws.

One clue to the PC’s thinking may lie in the makeup of its legal panel, which proposed the changes. It is unusually tilted toward mainland attitudes. Of its 21 members, a dozen are from China and only nine from Hong Kong. That ratio reverses that of the committee as a whole. Some of the mainland members hold senior positions with China’s National People’s Congress and are more familiar with the mainland’s legal system than Hong Kong common law.

Chief executive-designate Tung Chee Hwa weighed into the controversy by endorsing the Preparatory Committee’s proposals, many of which he accurately noted were fairly technical. “It’s a matter of getting it right between balancing individual rights and the public good,” he said. For the first time since he got the top job last month, Tung learned what it was like to be the object of a protest himself. About 15 people demonstrated outside his temporary office, carrying banners that chided him as Beijing’s “trumpet.” Democratic Party vice-chairman Yeung Sum labeled him a “lackey” of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the Asian context, the old laws are hardly as “draconian” as their critics make them out to be. India, Indonesia and Singapore all require police permission for demonstrations. In Malaysia, it is mandatory for any public gathering of five people or more. Even in Japan, with its long democratic tradition of public protests, a permit is needed if a demonstration has the potential to “disrupt traffic.”

Retrun to Main Story


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