Clarification needed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 August, 1996, 12:00am

Article 23 of the Basic Law is an unfortunate by-product of the suspicions which were aroused in Beijing by Hong Kong's enthusiastic support for the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square. It adds several restrictions which were not included in earlier drafts of the Basic Law, the best-known being the requirement for the Special Administrative Region to enact laws against treason, secession, sedition, and subversion.

Amid the concerns that have been repeatedly voiced about those provisions, until now, little attention has been paid to another part of Article 23. That part bars foreign political bodies from operating in Hong Kong and stops local groups from having any ties with them.

There is no reason why this need prove controversial. While it may not be necessary to ban foreign political parties from the SAR, few will object to such a restriction being imposed. The real problem is that the Basic Law provides no definition what is meant by a political body. Given the broad nature of Article 23's other provisions, this has aroused fears an ultra-broad interpretation will be applied. Numerous groups, including the local offices of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, fear they might then be caught within its ambit. Legal watchdog Justice has even broken all ties with its British parent organisation and incorporated locally, in an effort to avoid being caught in this trap. Others claim Beijing plans to use the ambiguities in Article 23 as an excuse to suppress them.

There should be no need for such fears. No mainland official have ever suggested this provision would be used to ban human rights monitors and environmental pressure groups. But until the matter is clarified such doubts are inevitable. Unlike so many other issues, this one should be fairly easy to resolve. All that is needed is for either the Preparatory Committee, or representatives of the future SAR government, to state that the ban will only extend to foreign political parties seeking to operate in the SAR. Such statements will be reassuring to local groups which have ties to international human rights and environmental organisations. A lot of, hopefully, needless fears could then be laid to rest.