“Return rule to the people!” That was one of the chants as hundreds of thousands of people marched in Hong Kong on July 1st, the sixth anniversary of Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China. It was the largest protest since 1989’s Tiananmen protests, when close to one-million people in Hong Kong joined the world in denouncing the Chinese army’s killing of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.
Since Britain relinquished control of Hong Kong in 1997, the city has been a special administrative region of China with a high degree of autonomy, in accordance with China’s “one nation, two systems” policy. This means that while Hong Kong has come under Chinese sovereignty, the fundamental rights of its seven-million people continue to be protected by Hong Kong’s Basic Law. These rights include freedom of speech, assembly, association, and religion, due process of law, and the right to own property.
Many believe that these rights are now threatened by proposed legislation called for in Article Twenty-three of the Basic Law. The legislation would establish provisions to enforce laws on treason, sedition, and official secrets. One of the Hong Kong demonstrators, publisher George Tai, said he was concerned about the effect of Article Twenty-three on freedom of expression:
“Our freedom of reading materials will be limited. It is already the law in China that you cannot bring anything about Tibet, the Dalai Lama, things against the China government, etc.”
The U.S. shares the concerns of Hong Kong’s citizens. The U.S. opposes any law that threatens Hong Kong’s unique identity and places any restrictions on fundamental rights. The current draft of the Article Twenty-three legislation is especially worrisome because it contains provisions banning certain kinds of organizations and lacks a “public interest” defense to protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The U.S. remains committed to the preservation of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula, as well as to the continued enjoyment by the people of Hong Kong of their longstanding civil liberties. The July 1st demonstration and controversy surrounding Article Twenty-three indicate the desire of Hong Kong’s citizens for a government accountable to the people and the need to move rapidly toward democracy. That is the only way, as President George W. Bush has stressed, to ensure that the rights of Hong Kong citizens will be preserved.