Wed, Apr 08, 2009 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: An unwanted parallel in Hong Kong

The government can’t be blamed for wanting to avoid parallels being drawn between Taiwan and Hong Kong in relation to China, which is presumably one reason why it renamed its proposed comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (CECA) as an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA). The Hong Kong version of CECA simply had too much bad press.

But evidence of backtracking on human rights in Hong Kong suggests that economics is not the only parallel that Taiwan may be forced to heed.

Last week, a British teacher living in Hong Kong was sentenced to six months in prison for protesting last summer on the opening day of the Beijing Olympics. Matt Pearce had hung banners on a Hong Kong bridge calling for human rights and democracy.

Hong Kong activists have spent the past 12 years fighting to prevent their basic freedoms from eroding, but theirs, in balance, has been a losing battle. This is because the “one country, two systems” model was problematic from the start: Media outlets began exercising self-censorship from the very beginning to avoid pressing Beijing’s buttons. Meanwhile, China sought curbs on civic activities.

Within five years, a bill was introduced to activate Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which would have resulted in the banning of human rights organizations, religious groups and other civic bodies that Beijing found unpalatable.

The bill was pushed off the table by massive protests, but in February this year, Macau passed legislation to enforce a carbon copy Article 23 in its own Basic Law. The legislation took effect last month, with rights groups calling it a major setback for the territory — and one that could have ramifications for Hong Kong.

Perhaps signaling Beijing’s anger at popular opposition to Article 23, a Hong Kong academic who had been active in fighting the bill was refused entry into Macau just days before the Macau version of the law took effect. In the run-up to a legislative vote on the bill, Macau had also denied entry to pro-democracy Hong Kong legislators.

But even without implementing Article 23 in Hong Kong, China has developed methods of cracking down on civil society, and Pearce’s sentence was only one example.

The Court of Appeal of the High Court of Hong Kong will soon issue a ruling in a case brought by Taiwanese Falun Gong practitioners who were denied entry to the territory in February 2003. The case, which has been in the court system for six years, includes evidence that Hong Kong immigration authorities denied entry to hundreds of Taiwanese Falun Gong practitioners in the years since Beijing began hunting down members of the spiritual movement.

It is interesting to note that Hong Kong’s immigration authorities have not denied blocking entry to the Falun Gong practitioners, but they have argued that the Taiwanese were removed not for their Falun Gong affiliation but because they posed an unrelated “security threat.” The nature of this threat remains unexplained and unclear.

The “one country, two systems” framework was a negotiated solution to a geopolitical problem that had precious little input from ordinary Hong Kong people. The effect of the agreement, however, was to provide a barrier of sorts that protected certain legal and human rights for at least 50 years.

The outcome of these cases could offer a barometer of the strength of that barrier, the health of Hong Kong’s courts and the freedoms enjoyed by its people.

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