The people have spoken. They deserve a response

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2003, 12:00am

The people have spoken. Not all of the people, but enough - surely - to give the government reason to pause and think again. It should ponder the wisdom of sticking with its rushed timetable for passing the national security legislation; it should reflect on its own style of governing and its relationship with the people for whom it governs.

Some 500,000 people took to the streets yesterday, to demonstrate their opposition to the national security legislation or, at least, contentious aspects of it. They showed they are prepared to be on their guard, to try to block a threat to freedoms which set Hong Kong apart as a great city, and a unique economy, in Asia. The turnout is the highest Hong Kong has seen on issues involving its own government: only the two rallies in May 1989 in support of the student-led democracy movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were bigger.


The historic protest yesterday was the result of a confluence of factors. Many marchers wanted to vent their anger at what they perceive to be an inept administration that has presided over a six-year decline of their fortunes since Hong Kong's return to China in 1997. Rightly or wrongly, an increasing proportion of the population have pointed their fingers at Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, whose popularity has plummeted from almost 70 per cent when he assumed his position to a low of under 40 per cent. Calls of 'Down with Tung Chee-hwa' echoed through the crowds yesterday. It is, of course, unfair to blame Mr Tung for all that ails Hong Kong. But no leader can expect to be revered when unemployment is high, deflation is raging and people see no end to the destruction of their wealth.

Yet the trigger for an alienated public to come together and rally against the government was the proposed legislation, required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, to outlaw treason, secession, sedition, subversion, disclosure of state secrets and political bodies with overseas affiliation. Although the government has made various concessions to make the legislation more palatable, flaws remain. The legislation, due to go to a vote in Legco next week, still contains provisions that afford the authorities a means of proscribing local organisations affiliated to mainland bodies that have been banned under mainland law. The proscription mechanism threatens freedom of association. It amounts to a backdoor way of applying mainland law here, which will muddy the divide - ordained by China's policy of 'one country, two systems' - between legal systems of the two jurisdictions. The government's refusal to introduce a public interest defence, while widening the reach of the law on unauthorised disclosure of official secrets, threatens free flow of information. It puts at risk freedom of the press and the public's right to know.


Before his departure after a three-day visit, Premier Wen Jiabao sought to calm public concern over the national security legislation. He repeated the official stance that the proposed legislation would not affect the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong people. Mr Wen's reassuring words were soothing; the bill's critics have at times been excessive in their complaints. But what drove Hong Kong people to come out yesterday was the lurking fear that the legislation could be merely the first shaving of their freedoms - that if they failed to make a stand yesterday, the rights and freedoms they now enjoy might be fettered in the future.

Such fears were dismissed by officials in charge of spearheading the laws through the legislature. They pointed to similar legislation, some more draconian than the proposed bill, in a number of democracies. But they have chosen to ignore the reality that Hong Kong does not have a truly democratic political system to guard against possible abuse of the law by an administration. The government is not returned by popular vote and does not have to account to the people for its stewardship.


In a sense, the rally was a show of force by an opposition frustrated by its lack of opportunity to win the right to govern and fearful of the future after the national security legislation is passed. The organisers of the rally are members of the pro-democracy camp who have waged a campaign for universal suffrage in Hong Kong for 20 years and who supported the democracy movement in Beijing in 1989. Since the movement was quashed in a bloody crackdown, they have held an annual vigil to commemorate Tiananmen and have urged the central government to reverse its verdict on the campaign as a counter-revolutionary rebellion. For them, the battle over Article 23 legislation is a matter of the utmost gravity. For the public, it is to safeguard their rights to free speech, free assembly, and association, to say 'no' to the authorities - and to say what they choose to say about them.

Over the past 20 years, as Hong Kong lurched its way through periods of uncertainty about its future, the right to free speech and assembly have provided a social safety valve, by allowing people to allay their anxieties by expressing their concerns peacefully. Yesterday's rally was one such momentous exercise of the people's rights. The marchers showed, once again, that Hong Kong people have a strong sense of responsibility and they care about this city they call home. Those who were kept for hours inside Victoria Park, MTR stations and on the streets of Causeway Bay patiently waited for their turn to begin the march. The procession, apart from causing traffic jams, proceeded peacefully.


At the ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the formation of the Hong Kong special administrative region yesterday morning, Premier Wen called on Hong Kong people to rally together, treasure their status as masters of their own destiny, maintain social stability and seize the opportunity to build a better Hong Kong. 'What Hong Kong needs now is understanding, trust and unity; confidence, courage and action,' he said. Hong Kong people surely appreciate Mr Wen's words of support. He received nothing but warm greetings wherever he went over his three-day visit. But it is difficult to see how Hong Kong people could rally around their administration, which has evidently lost the trust of so many through its failure to listen.

No public protest - no public event - ever draws a 100 per cent turnout. But the voice of the people rang out yesterday and the government must respond. If it fails to do so, it will prove its critics right: that this is a government which cannot, and does not, listen. Instead of rushing the Article 23 legislation through the legislature as scheduled, it should slow down and engage in further dialogue with the community on its harshest provisions. The chief executive would do well to contemplate the style of his governing. If he wants the support of the people, he should hear their concerns and respond to them.