Hong Kong critics prepare to bite their tongues in '97 Many doubt Beijing will allow free speech after takeover in July

December 23, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HONG KONG -- For two years now, exiled labor activist Han Dongfang has benefited from this British colony's freedom of speech to do what would be unthinkable in China: publish a newsletter documenting the plight of workers in China.

Starting next year, however, Han said he believes his China Labor Bulletin could land him in jail.

"I'm not advocating the overthrow of the government, but in China everything is a political issue. I'm preparing myself for 10 years in jail," Han said.

Han is not alone in worrying that freedom of speech will be curtailed -- and punished -- in Hong Kong after China takes control July 1.

Already, journalists admit to self-censorship, while the man chosen Dec. 11 to be Hong Kong's first leader under Chinese rule has said dissident groups that criticize China should be "realistic" and leave Hong Kong or cease activities.

The clearest indication of future limits on free speech came Dec. 4, when Britain proposed a law that gives a moderate definition of subversion. The proposed law is strongly opposed by China and is almost certain to be replaced by a law making it easier to arrest people for criticizing the government.

"I'm not a pessimistic person, but I think the parameters are already being set," said Li Yuet-wah, former head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. "Freedom of expression will be curtailed in Hong Kong after the handover."

In theory, freedom of speech is guaranteed after China resumes control of Hong Kong. China has guaranteed Hong Kong's "way of life" for the next 50 years, while China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, has said in a widely published speech that "after 1997 we shall still allow people in Hong Kong to attack the Chinese Communist Party and China verbally."

Recently, though, top Chinese leaders have backed off such views.

Over the summer, for example, a senior Chinese leader said in an interview with Cable News Network that while press freedom would be guaranteed, the Hong Kong news media would not be permitted to write about Hong Kong or Taiwan wanting independence. Chinese laws, he said, must be respected, causing Hong Kong journalists to fear that they will fall under the same censorship laws as their Chinese counterparts.

Controversy over freedom of expression has come to a head in recent weeks over the British proposal to define what is meant by the offenses of subversion, secession, sedition and treason. Subversion has become the favorite charge leveled against dissidents in China, and government critics in Hong Kong worry that if subversion is interpreted as it is in China, then they, too, might be jailed.

"This is the single biggest worry we have about the handover," said Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch/Asia's Hong Kong office. "We know from experience what China's definition of subversion is, which is anything the government doesn't like."

According to the Basic Law, the new government in Hong Kong is allowed to prohibit activities that threaten national security. Britain and China have negotiated fruitlessly over the past 18 months to come up with a definition of such seditious or subversive activities.

Finally, British-appointed Gov. Chris Patten introduced a bill in the Legislative Council on Dec. 4 that would restrict the definition of subversion to the use of violence or incitement to violence in attempting to overthrow the government. Simply attacking the government would not be subversion under the British proposal.

The draft law was immediately rejected as an attempt to cause "disruption and instability in Hong Kong," said Zhang Junsheng, China's spokesman in Hong Kong. "Such acts will never be acceptable to the Chinese side."

According to former Chief Justice Yang Ti Liang, an unsuccessful contender to be chief executive whose views on subversion closely parallel China's, Britain is trying to impose its standards of human rights on the next government.

"I don't think this government has any business telling the next government what to do," Yang said. "You're only creating problems for the already sour relations" between Britain and China.

The British proposal will not be voted on by the Legislative Council until next year, but it seems certain to fail. Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp of legislators has seen defections cut its slender majority of 31 in the 60-seat council to a minority of 26.

To make failure of the subversion law all but guaranteed, 34 legislators applied Dec. 9 to join the legislature that China will appoint July 1 when it takes control of Hong Kong and scraps the democratically elected legislature. None of the 34 is likely to vote for Britain's proposal on subversion, said Minky Worden, an official with Hong Kong's Democracy Party.

"We have 26 votes for a good sedition law," Worden said. "They have 34 votes."

Even if the law fails, Britain might have won a small tactical victory, said Ming Chan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong. Britain has "set the parameters of the debate," forcing China to admit that it will deal more harshly with government critics after the handover than Britain would have, Chan said.

Still, after 150 years of sometimes harsh colonial rule, Chan said Britain's new-found love for democracy is a bit late coming.

"It's like the stepmother taking the baby to five-star hotels every night just before returning the child to the mother," Chan said. "The mother says, 'Let's go to McDonald's' but the child is spoiled and says, 'That doesn't cut it.' "

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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