Part 4: Article 23 Series

 

Dear Subscribers and Friends,

 

The HKSAR Government's strategy on Article 23 seems to be to grit its teeth, generate semblance of support, and get new laws passed as soon as possible (by July 2003). It knows it has enough votes to get through the legislature. There is now an effort to round up the 'united front' troops to show public support. The effort has its farcical aspect.

 

But it is losing the 'hearts and mind' battle with the general public. There is widespread consensus that the government should publish a White Bill for further public consultation and the government cannot come up with a convincing response why it should not do so.

  

A. A reminder – what Article 23 is about

 

1. Art 23 of the Basic Law requires Hong Kong to legislate “on its own” to prohibit acts of secession, subversion, treason, theft of state secrets, sedition and links between local and foreign political organizations.

 

2. Security Bureau, the responsible policy unit, published a consultation paper on how it proposed to legislate in September and the consultation period ends on Christmas Eve. The proposals are complex.

 

[This commentator has worked with a group of lawyers (The Article 23 Concern Group) to simplify the proposals for the general public and summarize concerns (published 7 pamphlets explaining the proposals). It took the Group over a month to digest the contents]

 

3. More and more people and groups have come out to demand a “White Bill” (draft law) for further public consultation.

 

B. The usual and unusual suspects

 

  1. The pro-White Billers (WB) include the usual suspects – human right campaigners, the media, lawyers, academics, religious groups, other NGOs and some legislators etc. The usual suspects are going to march this Sunday.
  2. The unusual WB are august members of the business community. These include foreign banks in Hong Kong, the British Chamber of Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce. Many of these folks have provided comprehensive written submissions to Security Bureau (e.g. www.amcham.org.hk).  

C. Counter-strategy to find support

 

  1. Pressure has apparently been put (perhaps even by mainland official bodies) on leading business people to come out in favour of Art 23. The most high profile individual statement came from the chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, who made a carefully and well-worded statement supporting Art 23 legislation that has public support.
  2. The united front has been re-activated to gather support for the government. Not to be outdone by the 15 December march, mainland business groups and organizations are rumoured to be planning to march on the 22 December.

D. A show for farce?

 

The 22 December marchers may well be able to draw a large number but what will they ask for - “No White Bill”?

 

E. Observation and Analysis

 

1. White Bills are not unusual - in recent years we have seen the Town Planning White Bill and the Securities and Futures White Bill. This process is reserved for complex issues that have wide implications. Consulting with draft legislation enables people to comment much more specifically and at a higher level of detail. The government should have provided a White Bill in the first place.

 

2. The government said a draft bill will be ready in February 2003 but refused to say whether it will be a White Bill for further public consultation or whether it will put a bill (Blue Bill) directly to the legislature. According to the Solicitor General, the government's existing position is not to publish a White Bill and a change would need to be an Executive Council decision.

 

3. At the forums organized by various groups over the last few weeks, the government has conceded that many issues brought up by the public need to be reviewed. There is a rumour circulating that the government might publish a Blue Bill for a very short period of public consultation (a week or two?) before putting it to the legislature as a gesture of responsiveness to public demand for a White Bill.

 

4. The fear within government is that the longer the discussion the more pain it will face - hence its resistance of the White Bill approach as it requires giving the public an extended period of time for more discussion. Assuming there is a bottom line that needs to be achieved to satisfy Beijing's national security concerns, there might lie the real issue. Whether in the form of a White or Blue Bill, that bottom line is where the debate will ultimately focus. From the government's point of view, if it feels it has no leeway, then its priority is to get the law passed and it has the votes in LegCo.

 

CHRISTINE LOH