When China regained control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, the former colony became a special administrative region with a high degree of autonomy in accord with China’s “one nation, two systems” policy. This meant that while Hong Kong would come under the sovereignty of China’s Communist regime, its people would continue to enjoy the civil and economic freedoms they had come to know in the last decades of British rule. Included among them were freedom of speech, religion, and association, due process of law, and the right to own property.
Hong Kong’s constitution, called the Basic Law, requires the local government to enact laws to deal with treason and other serious crimes. The Hong Kong government is now considering how to meet this requirement. In recent months, some people have expressed concerns that the new laws under consideration might adversely affect fundamental rights.
One proposed change that has raised concerns is the extension of penalties for “treason, subversion, sedition, and secession” to permanent residents, whether inside or outside of Hong Kong, without regard to their nationality or legal domicile. Another is the possibility of increased restrictions on foreign political organizations that could compromise the integrity and independence of Hong Kong’s legal system and civil society. A third change being considered is granting the government emergency powers that might not include sufficient checks and balances to protect civil liberties.
Some people in Hong Kong are also concerned that proposed rules on “unlawful disclosure” of state secrets might go too far. Any attempt to use changes in the law to keep financial information about state-owned businesses secret could undermine the city’s vitality as a financial center.
It is essential that there be the broadest possible consultation and deliberation on any changes regarding these laws. Moreover, as many have pointed out, the context for the debate in Hong Kong is the Basic Law’s call for greater democratization. A democratically elected government, answerable to the will of the people, is the best way to ensure the protection of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong.