- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

HONG KONG Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, in the first policy address of his second five-year term, reassured the territory's citizens that a proposed anti-subversion law would not diminish the rights they currently enjoy.

He repeated the government's position that the legislation is meant to protect national security. "It does not undermine in any way the preservation of the characteristics of Hong Kong as an open, pluralistic and cosmopolitan city," Mr. Tung said.

"It will not affect the basic rights and freedoms we now enjoy. Nor will it undermine [our] compliance with internationally accepted norms of behavior. This is the fundamental principle behind the whole legislative proposal."

Mr. Tung's assurances were needed but not necessarily believed, said Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, whose surveys have found growing concerns about personal freedoms after the proposal for the legislation was released.

In August, 15 percent of Hong Kong residents said they were worried about personal freedoms. By November, that number had jumped to 22 percent. "The only thing that happened between those two dates," Mr. DeGolyer said, "is the release of the Article 23 consultation paper."

Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, requires the Hong Kong government to enact national security legislation covering acts of treason, sedition, subversion, secession and the theft of state secrets. In September, the government issued a consultation paper with a broad outline of the offenses the law would cover. The consultation period ended Dec. 24 with more than 90,000 comments filed with the Security Bureau.

One of the more controversial points of the proposal will allow the government to ban an organization if it is affiliated with a group banned in China for security reasons.

Secretary for Security Regina Ip said that the Basic Law contains a number of legal protections for groups, and that no organization could be proscribed in Hong Kong without a hearing in the Hong Kong courts.

Human rights activists fear that Falun Gong, which is banned in China but operates openly in Hong Kong, could be affected by the legislation. Mrs. Ip said the spiritual group has not been banned in China for national security reasons and so would not come under the purview of the proposed law.

The proposal also has aroused concern among the local and international business communities, with the American Chamber of Commerce and other groups calling for a consultation on the actual text of any proposed legislation.

Governments from New Zealand to the European Community also weighed in with their concerns. The State Department, in a Nov. 21 statement, urged "the fullest possible consultation on the draft legislation" to win public confidence.

The government continues to reject calls for a second round of consultations on the actual legislative language. Mrs. Ip told a legislative panel the first report based on the comments should be ready by the end of January and a draft legislation should be put before the Legislative Council by April.

Meanwhile the debate on Article 23 has taken its toll on the popularity of the government. Mr. Tung's popularity, which stood at 60 percent in the first six months of his first term in 1997, has dropped to 26 percent according to a recent Transition Project poll.

The satisfaction rating for Mrs. Ip, who spearheaded the Article 23 debate, has dropped from 80 percent in August 2002 to 53 percent by November.

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