Hong Kong's legislature yesterday passed a new law giving authorities more power to tap phones and conduct other surveillance measures, a move critics fear will curtail civil liberties in the territory.
Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition boycotted the final vote as the marathon debate that began on Wednesday ended early yesterday morning, after a proposed provision to reconsider the law two years later was defeated.
The surveillance bill passed 32-0. The opposition holds 25 seats in the 60-member legislature. The bill had been widely expected to pass with backing from pro-government lawmakers.
Critics have expressed worries that the new surveillance legislation will empower police officers to eavesdrop on political opponents, although the government has insisted it won't.
Apart from phone tapping, the bill also covers interception of mail and e-mail, as well as physical surveillance, such as undercover infiltration.
Journalist groups fear authorities can now intercept conversations between reporters and their sources, or lawyers and their clients.
Opposition legislator James To (
"This was like debating with a wall," he grumbled during the final hours of debate.
"The passage of this bill will affect us greatly. The level of disappointment we feel isn't a normal level of disappointment," Margaret Ng (吳靄儀), another opposition lawmaker, said.
Hong Kong Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee (李少光) said the new law was crucial for the territory's public safety.
"I must emphasize that this piece of legislation is very important to maintain the good law and order of Hong Kong," he said after the bill's passage.
"I wish to assure the residents of Hong Kong that the law now is a good balance between effective law enforcement on the one hand and the protection of privacy on the other," Lee added.
The law requires surveillance operations to be approved by judges appointed by Hong Kong's leader. Opposition legislators argue such a system of checks isn't independent enough.
Among other safeguards, the law creates an oversight commissioner, also appointed by the territory's leader, and authorizes the official to order the government to pay compensation to individuals whose privacy rights have been violated.
Another area of concern is that surveillance conducted by undercover officers in person, as opposed to electronic surveillance that involves devices, only requires departmental approval, not by the panel of judges.
Hong Kong lawmakers and the government were in a hurry to pass the legislation because a court ruling that rejects existing arrangements as unconstitutional takes effect tomorrow.
Hong Kongers have been especially wary of intrusions into their civil rights since the former British territory return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
The local Constitution promises a semi-autonomous government and Western-style civil liberties commonly denied in mainland China, but many are fearful that Beijing's authoritarian regime will gradually tighten its grip on the territory.
A proposed national security law also seen as a threat to freedoms was shelved after half a million people protested in 2003.