Clouds over Hong Kong

October 04, 2002

SINCE CHINA took back Hong Kong from British colonial rule, the forces eroding its residents' liberties have been less like the typhoons regularly blowing in from the South China Sea and more like the insidious pink-hued clouds of pollution that often envelope the territory's islands, thanks to mainland factories.

Along with Singapore, Hong Kong still sits atop various worldwide rankings of relative economic freedoms, but under Chinese rule its economy has become ever more linked to the mainland -- and its political system ever more under Beijing's thumb.

The latest blow to political freedoms in Hong Kong came last week when its government unveiled proposals for a set of new national security laws, which have been required by the territory's constitution since the 1997 takeover.

Hong Kong's leadership, appointed by Beijing, compares them to laws in other countries, including the United States. It insists the measures would not be used to further suppress press freedom or target such dissenters as followers of Falun Gong religious practices, tolerated in Hong Kong but deemed an illegal cult on the mainland.

In theory, that may be possible. But in the long run, it's highly unlikely -- because some of the same sorts of laws are often instruments of heavy-handed political control on the mainland and because Hong Kong's political structure is already so thoroughly controlled by Beijing.

The territory is governed by an unpopular puppet, former shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, who this summer was re-appointed to a second five-year term by China. One of his first acts was to appoint 14 Cabinet ministers to insulate himself from the remnants of the former colony's civil service, ministers accountable only to Mr. Tung and Beijing. And, of course, Hong Kong's courts have been overseen by China's since 1997.

No wonder that the proposed security laws have Hong Kong journalists, its pro-Taiwan and Tibet groups, and human-rights activists sounding alarms.

But grass-roots opposition to the proposals has not been widespread. Whereas Hong Kong citizens used to commonly turn out en masse to protest various mainland actions, such displays are hard to find these days on any meaningful scale.

So while the proposed security laws may bode a new Chinese crackdown, a chilling cloud of caution has already settled over the former colony, largely accomplishing the same repression.

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