PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 November, 2002, 12:00am

I WAS IN THE audience when Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee spoke at a panel discussion in the Foreign Correspondents' Club last month. Also taking part in the discussion on the topic of 'Is Hong Kong Ready for Article 23?' were Solicitor-General Robert Allcock and legislators Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee.

To her credit, Mrs Ip has been willing to appear at many public events to explain the proposals in the Security Bureau's consultation document. At one point though, Mrs Ip said something that probably increased public cynicism of the government.

A solicitor, Mark Daly, pointed out that the consultation document had quoted selectively from reports of law reform commissions in other jurisdictions, and only quoted bits that seemed to support the government position. With remarkable candour, Mrs Ip said: 'Of course, it's free for us, as authors of the document, to quote whatever we think is helpful to our argument.'

Left unsaid was the corollary: anything not helpful to the government's position was left out. This means that the public, in being asked to comment on the document, is being given an incomplete picture.

Mrs Ip said: 'I don't agree that we've been deliberately misleading.'

Public cynicism on display

However, members of the public do not command the resources that the government does. If the government deliberately holds back any information that does not accord with its position, it is extremely difficult for the public to make an informed decision.

Public cynicism was also on display more recently, when the government announced it had obtained an opinion from a leading barrister in London, David Pannick, which supported its position that its proposals do not infringe human rights and are not objectionable 'as a matter of legal principle'.

Almost immediately, the government was asked whether it had shopped around and approached other Queen's Counsel for opinions before finding one that fitted. The government denied this, insisting Mr Pannick was the first one it had approached. Nonetheless, there is a nagging suspicion in my mind. What if Mr Pannick's position had been unfavourable to the government? Would it have been released anyway? Or would it quietly gather dust on some shelf even though it was paid for with taxpayers' money?

Such doubts would not exist if the government had let people know ahead of time that it had approached Mr Pannick, or some other legal authority, and was awaiting the arrival of their opinion. By not announcing the approach until after the opinion had arrived, and had turned out to be favourable, the government inevitably raised questions in the public's mind.

The public's distrust of the government may well be reciprocated by the administration. Why is the administration so adamantly opposed to putting out a 'white bill' on Article 23 legislation?

Likely reason is fear

The government says it is absolutely sincere in wanting to receive public feedback. However, by insisting on a 'blue bill', it is effectively saying it only really wants to consult the 60 members of Legco.

The likely reason is the government's fear of what may happen if a white bill is released. Officials may fear that opposition to some proposals - which the government has already promised Beijing it will implement - may coalesce so that the administration will be unable to discharge commitments made secretly to the central government.

This would be similar to the situation in 1987, when the British colonial government went through the motions of consulting the public as to whether there should be direct elections in 1988, when it had already made up its mind that such elections would not be held. The British never lived that episode down; the Tung administration should be aware of the pitfalls of going down that path.

What the government apparently fears is a situation, reminiscent of the period immediately after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, when all Hong Kong was, in effect, united in opposition to China.

That may be a legitimate concern. But the solution lies in greater openness. Be honest with the Hong Kong public. Let them know that Hong Kong has no choice but to pass Article 23 legislation. And that the legislation proposed will be the minimum required to discharge Hong Kong's obligations. The current proposals are certainly not minimal, not by a long shot.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator