Less is more

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2003, 12:00am

The reason why the government's bill to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law ran into severe opposition was not the administration's failure to issue a white bill, or former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee's abrasive style, or even the July 9 deadline it imposed. Those contributed to the public anger. The main reason, however, was the government's failure to adopt a minimalist approach.

We are constantly reminded by people both here and in Beijing that Hong Kong has a duty to enact such legislation. That is true, and Hong Kong should enact whatever is required by the Basic Law. But there is no reason to go beyond the requirements of the Basic Law, which is what the Tung administration did.

The best way to ensure that similar problems do not arise in September, when the government will resume its efforts to enact Article 23 legislation, is to make sure that it does not go beyond the Basic Law's requirements.

What are we required to do? According to the Basic Law, we are required to enact legislation 'to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the [special administrative] region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the [special administrative] region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies'.

Many of these laws already exist. For example, the British and Chinese governments agreed on the substance of the Official Secrets Ordinance, passed by Legco in 1997, precisely to implement that part of Article 23. There is no need for additional action.

Also, Hong Kong amended the Societies Ordinance after the handover to prohibit foreign political organisations from conducting political activities here, and to prohibit local political bodies from establishing ties with foreign organisations. This was acknowledged by the Security Bureau. There is no need for additional action in that area either.

Some people have asked why critics of the government have not come up with their own proposals to meet the Basic Law's requirement. Now, the Article 23 Concern Group, which supports a minimalist approach, has done just that. It has published a leaflet entitled: 'Article 23 Concern Group: The Proper Way Forward.' In it, the group poses the question: what legislation is required under Article 23?

Its answer: 'Amendment of the Crimes Ordinance to create express offences criminalising acts of secession and subversion against the central government. Every other requirement of Article 23 is already met by existing legislation.'

Of course, this does not mean there is no need to update or otherwise amend existing laws. For example, there is a need to modernise legislation to reflect the change in sovereignty, removing such terms as 'the Crown' and 'Her Majesty'. Curiously, however, the government's proposals left such colonial terms in place.

To be fair, the government is also liberalising some existing legislation, for example, by getting rid of obsolete common-law offences such as misprision [the deliberate concealment of knowledge of a treasonable act or felony].

But there is no reason for introducing amendments to make the laws more restrictive and to give greater power to the government. As the Article 23 Concern Group says: 'These amendments are objectionable in principle and detail.'

As long as the government adopts a minimalist approach, its proposals to implement Article 23 are likely to encounter little opposition.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator