- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

HONG KONG, Feb. 20 (UPI) — Human rights groups, the church, the media and some lawyers are saying they still have concerns about how new security laws in Hong Kong could curb freedoms despite the government having scaled back the legislation after widespread protests.

The revised bill contains more explicit instances for levying charges like treason and sedition than the initially proposed legislation but still many still say it could block freedom of speech and assembly.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 and the former colony still enjoys the freedoms it held under British rule. At the time of the handover an anti-subversion law was noted in Hong Kong's mini-constitution but the government didn't act on it until Beijing signaled last year that it was time to move on the legislation. The government jumped on the idea, saying it was time an anti-subversion law was enacted.

Such anti-subversion legislation would give the government the power to shut various organizations if they are linked to or financed by groups deemed to be terrorist or subversive in mainland China. Distributing information that could be viewed as seditious or subversive would be a criminal act.

Any information that authorities classify as protected state information is published without the government's consent could be against the law.

"Under this law, you can't duplicate, publish or distribute material (the government sees as protected.) Even if you receive an e-mail with material the government considers unauthorized you still could be convicted … it's handling material … so that leaves the question of what can you put in your written work?" Y.K. Law of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor told United Press International.

The head of Hong Kong's Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Joseph Zen came out Monday saying tighter controls on Catholics in mainland China could mean trouble for Catholics practicing in Hong Kong.

Regarded as an outspoken champion for human rights, Zen said China is moving to exert more control over the Catholic Church on the mainland and this would mean trouble for Hong Kong's Catholic church as it has ties to underground Catholic groups that are not members of the official church on the mainland.

Zen said the numbers of officially approved Catholic churches on the mainland are growing but that Beijing is using "ever more repressive measures" cement its grip on the church.

The Vatican has no diplomatic ties with Beijing and the Chinese authorities do not recognize the authority of the pope. Unlike on the mainland, the more than 300,000 Roman Catholics in Hong Kong can worship freely in churches that have pledged loyalty to Rome. In China, Catholics are only allowed to worship at government approved churches.

Many observers say they believe at the heart of this proposed legislation lies Beijing's continuing crackdown on the outlawed Falun Gong movement. The semi-religious group China calls an "evil cult" is illegal on the mainland but under Hong Kong law members are free to practice. Falun Gong supporters and human rights activists fear the new laws will be used to shut down the movement in Hong Kong.

On Saturday Falun Gong practitioners demonstrated against the planned law and sat outside the Legislative Council holding banners that said "Uphold human rights" and "No draconian law in Hong Kong."

"Beijing does want to see something put in place here, some sort of law they can feel comfortable with. They do care about the Falun Gong activities in Hong Kong and at least the group could be deterred by law," said Law.

Falun Gong members in Hong Kong said they believe the new legislation is aimed at them. "We think that (Chinese President) Jiang Zemin's punitive actions could be extended to Hong Kong to persecute us and limit our freedoms of belief, speech and assembly," the group's spokesman Hui Yee Han told UPI.

China's crackdown on the group in the last four years has led to the detention of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners, according to human rights groups. The Falun Gong said they have documented evidence of at least 600 people who have died while in police custody. The group says it has inside information that over 6,000 practitioners have been tortured to death in the hands of Chinese authorities.

China maintains that it has outlawed the group for the safety of the public. It says practicing the beliefs of Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi can cause

mental illness and that individuals have caused harm to themselves and others.

Officials say the bill would not affect any group's freedoms here and that the press would be able to operate normally. The proposed law is expected to be pushed through the Legislative Council soon, possibly in just a few months.

"I think this could be a case of the Hong Kong government trying to be more religious than the pope. They are trying to hard to please Beijing and overshot the mark They didn't know what Beijing wanted," said Law. "All is done at the expense of Hong Kong and what is perceived as in the interest of Beijing."

Under the handover agreement Hong Kong's freedoms and system are to be separate from Beijing's and guaranteed for 50 years but the chief executive was handpicked by the mainland to govern the former colony from the time the former colony was handed back. The Legislative Council also has a wide range of pro-Beijing members who vote in line with Beijing's interests and is expected to rubber stamp the new legislation making it law in record time.





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