It is too soon to assert that Hong Kong’s freedoms, ostensibly guaranteed in the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, are under sustained attack. But it is not too soon to assert that Hong Kong faces nine months of potentially divisive debate and risks a further loss of confidence in those freedoms as the government embarks, in maladroit fashion, on a hazardous legal and political exercise at Beijing’s prodding.
This is because the government has finally begun to implement Article 23 in its China-endowed Basic Law: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”
Article 23 was not always so wide ranging. As Article 22 in a 1988 draft, it merely requested laws against “any act designed to undermine national unity or subvert the Central Peoples Government.” By February 1989, Article 23 had at least been reduced to concepts already recognized in Hong Kong’s British-style common law as the constitutional requirement became laws that “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, or theft of state secrets.” The final form, in which both subversion and anti-foreignism found a place, was passed in June 1989, not long after the Tiananmen demonstrations and the Beijing Massacre. Article 23 reflected Chinese communist paranoia then, and it does so now. It increased Hong Kong fears for the future then, and it does so now.
At least, for the first five years after Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty, the Hong Kong government shrewdly avoided the deep-seated controversy that any implementation of Article 23 is bound to arouse.