Hong Kong handover: Freedoms guaranteed, but for how long?

The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, guarantees that the territory will continue to be governed in much the same way under Chinese rule as it was during the British administration. It outlines the basis for Deng Xiaoping's "One Country - Two Systems" principle and enshrines in law people's freedoms. However, it also makes provision for the incoming Hong Kong government to override many of those guarantees if there is any threat of "subversion".

The ability of the Hong Kong government and judiciary to make decisions independently of China is set out in article 2 of the Basic Law. This states that Hong Kong will have "a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication, in accordance with the provisions of this law". This is supplemented by article 3, which ensures that the government will only be made up of Hong Kong people, not by officials drafted in from the mainland.

The "One Country, Two Systems" principle is outlined in article 5: "The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong SAR [special administrative region], and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years."

Article 27 guarantees freedom of speech and a free press in Hong Kong. However, there has been increasing self-censorship in the local media. This article also says that people will have "freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration" - though subsequently the provisional legislature has reintroduced the old colonial laws which mean that protesters have to seek prior permission from the police.

Article 68 guarantees that the Legislative Council will be elected. However, because of Chris Patten's decision to widen the franchise for the Legislative Council election in 1995, China has decided to scrap the existing Legco. The eventual aim, according to the Basic Law, is "the election of all members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage".

Despite all these promises, article 23 gives the SAR government the opportunity to enact laws which could overturn many of the freedoms outlined in the other parts of the Basic Law. It comes into force if there is a threat of "an act of treason, secession, sedition [or] subversion" against China, or "theft of state secrets". It is also designed "to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies".

This has been interpreted by many as giving the new administration wide- ranging powers to deal with its critics.

Cynics will inevitably draw comparisons with the constitution of the People's Republic, which is also littered with pledges and rights that have been disregarded by the government.

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