Subtle Changes Redefining Citizens' Liberties in Hong Kong, Experts Say


Piece by piece, law by law, the elements that made Hong Kong independent and unique before its restoration to Chinese rule last July are being eroded, say observers here and abroad.

The hand-over eight months ago went smoothly, without riots or tanks or drastic upheaval. Since then, however, the 6.3 million people who live here have been subject to a takeover in slow motion.

The changes are subtle, incremental and technical, and not immediately felt by the person on the street. But the results are nonetheless striking--and will redefine citizens' basic rights and freedom of expression.

"It is like cooking a frog over a gentle fire," says Law Yuk-kai, director of Human Rights Monitor in Hong Kong, which reports to the United Nations on the territory's compliance with international human rights agreements. "If you raise the temperature little by little, the frog won't know it's being cooked until it's too late."

Recently, three events have refocused attention on how Hong Kong is evolving under Chinese rule.

In a move that critics say whittles away gains in human rights protections, late last month the appointed legislature repealed recent additions to the territory's Bill of Rights.

The amendments, which had been passed by Hong Kong's elected legislature days before the body was replaced with the appointed one, guaranteed that the government would protect its people against violations by governments or private individuals. The amendments broadened Hong Kong's existing Bill of Rights and brought the territory's laws in line with international human rights covenants.

The new Legislative Council said that the amendments were confusing and that individuals were protected adequately by other Hong Kong laws. Debate in the legislature revealed that business owners feared complaints against them by individuals under the amendment.

But analysts say the action is part of a trend to tighten controls on society. "It is very clear that the government means to be a lot harsher on basic rights and freedoms," says Margaret Ng, a lawyer and former legislator. "Where civil liberties are concerned, they are taking a very tough line."

The repeal had long been expected; one of the first acts of the appointed legislature after it took power July 1 had been to freeze many of the last-minute laws passed by its predecessor. The freeze was extended twice more before the law was quietly killed.

Government supporters say Hong Kong is in good shape if detractors can only point to shades of change and policy shifts as mass protests and crackdowns are occurring in neighboring countries. But human rights advocates warn that the very subtlety of the rollbacks makes them all the more insidious.

"If we weren't here to make a fuss," says Law of Human Rights Monitor, "people may not have even noticed. The government is trying to slip things by."

Longtime defenders of Hong Kong's freedoms have taken it upon themselves to ensure that people are paying attention. Former legislator Emily Lau decided to test whether mainland officials based in Hong Kong were bound by Hong Kong laws, and how Hong Kong authorities would handle the situation if they didn't comply.

Lau, an outspoken politician who often criticizes the government and is considered "subversive" by China, requested her personal files from the Hong Kong branch of the New China News Agency, which acted as China's de facto embassy here before the hand-over. Under Hong Kong's 1996 Privacy Law, agencies that compile information on individuals are required to allow them to see their files within 40 days of the request and to correct any errors found.

After 10 months of silence, Lau received a one-sentence reply from the agency saying it didn't have a file on her.

The territory's Privacy Commission recommended that the New China News Agency be prosecuted, but Justice Secretary Elsie Leung announced last week that the case would be dropped. The prosecutor's office insisted in an open letter that "no law has been sidestepped," but it offered no explanation beyond protecting the agency's privacy.

"It's quite disgraceful," says Lau, explaining that the intention behind the law was to reassure people who feared that governments or institutions were keeping secret files on them.

The English-language South China Morning Post opined: "There does not seem to be any doubt that [the news agency] broke both the letter and the spirit of the law. . . . The refusal to [follow up] this time can only arouse fears that political considerations influenced the decision not to prosecute."

The future of Hong Kong's freedom of speech also became a hot topic of debate last week when a Hong Kong representative to China's parliament, which is now convening in Beijing, publicly condemned the "editorial independence" of a Hong Kong government-funded radio station.

Describing the station, Radio Television Hong Kong, as "a remnant of British rule," China advisor Xu Simin questioned why the government should subsidize a station that criticizes its own leader. The station hosts free-wheeling call-in shows in which listeners voice their complaints, sometimes about Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his administration.

"Mr. Tung is completely helpless," Xu complained. "I have proposed three times that he do something. He only says, 'Slowly, slowly.' "

More surprising than Xu's attack--he is a longtime critic of the station--was Tung's ambiguous response, which suggested that he believes the station should act more as a government voice. "While freedom of speech is important," he said Wednesday, "it is also important for government policies to be positively presented."

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