China moves to squash dissent

Hong Kong's new government says it will restrict political freedoms

Hong Kong's incoming government yesterday confirmed its critics' worst fears when it made clear that draconian curbs will be imposed on the operations of political organisations and the right to protest after the handover of the colony to China at the end of June.

The office of Tung Chee-Hwa, Chief Executive of the incoming government, issued what it described as a "public consultation document on civil liberties and social order" setting out a programme for reviving some of the more restrictive curbs on the rights to dissent which were scrapped by the outgoing colonial administration and introducing measures which appear to be squarely targeted at weakening Hong Kong's large pro-democracy organisations.

The document was described as "consultative". But it offered no options for consideration. Instead, it set out the various proposals made by Chinese advisory bodies who had previously indicated that Hong Kong's relatively recent spate of human rights law reform would have to be clawed back.

Presenting the document, Michael Suen, the Secretary for Policy Coordination, insisted that the new government was committed "to continued protection of human rights and personal freedoms". But he underlined the need to "strike a balance between civil liberties and social stability, personal rights and social obligations, individual interests and the common good'.

Reaction to the proposed changes has been swift. Albert Ho, the spokesman of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong's largest party whose operations would be curtailed under the law reforms, said: "If all the proposals were put into statute, there would be flagrant violations of human rights."

Allen Lee, leader of the Liberal Party, which supports the incoming administration, thought the proposals were balanced but said they contained grey areas. He singled out concern over the definition of "national security", a phrase peppering the document at points where prohibitions on political activity are mentioned.

Chris Patten, the Governor, questioned whether a "genuine consultation process" would be allowed. He challenged the new administration to say it would withdraw the proposals if public opinion were shown to be hostile.

Mr Suen stressed that changes would be made as China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), had decreed that Hong Kong's public order laws contravened the Basic Law or mini-constitution for the territory.

However, Mr Patten said, "the NPC is not Moses bringing the tablets down from the top of the mountain". He maintained that its rulings could be changed.

The amendments attracting most attention relate to the right to hold demonstrations and the right of political organisations to associate with overseas bodies and individuals.

The proposals would revive old laws giving the police wide powers to ban or curtail demonstrations of more than 30 people and, in general, would make it difficult to hold demonstrations without giving seven days notice. All of the colony's biggest demonstrations in recent times have been organised in response to events and at much less than seven days notice, although the police have powers to prevent their organisation.

Under the new proposals, special permission could be granted within 48 hours but not less than that.

Political organisations would be banned from all international contacts on the grounds that "Hong Kong is extremely vulnerable to external forces". The Democratic Party, for example, is heavily dependent on funding from overseas Chinese communities.

The proposals also seek to weaken the recently introduced Bill of Rights which ensures that other laws have to fulfill human rights criteria.

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