In the end, the officials bowed to the people

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 September, 2003, 12:00am

Taking a hard line on the controversial bill caused a tide of political discontent

When former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee told a gathering of university students more than 10 months ago that they must 'look further' and 'trust' the government on Article 23, she could not have envisaged the controversial national security bill would end in the way it has.

But less than a year after a consultation paper and subsequent draft bill were introduced, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has pushed the project to a surprise final stage - withdrawal.

From the start, the government took an unambiguous stance in the consultation paper - that Hong Kong had a duty to enact laws to fulfil its requirements under Article 23 of the Basic Law to ban acts of treason, subversion and sedition.

Throughout the three-month consultation process that started last September, and after the introduction of a blue bill in February, government officials and pro-Beijing figures insisted that while there was not an absolute deadline for the bill's passage, the law had to be enacted before the legislative year ended in July.

While the controversy might have reached its climax in the two weeks after July 1, when 500,000 protested on the streets of Hong Kong, the government's effort to push through the proposal had always faced strong opposition.

Despite repeated reassurances by both Mr Tung and his top aides that it would comply with international human rights standards, concerns remained throughout the consultation that freedom of speech, of the media and of assembly would be affected.

Early in the consultation period, while facing students at Chinese University, Mrs Ip simply dismissed their questions and said: 'After a few years when you look at the legislation, you will believe Secretary Ip has not lied to you.'

Brushing aside demands from the pro-democracy camp and legal sector that a white bill with no legal effect should first be issued for consultation, the government went ahead and tabled its draft bill to Legco in February.

With the Legco bills committee scrutinising the bill being dominated by pro-government legislators - with an expressed wish to rush through the bill before July - the conflict in the political arena intensified during the next four months, with the pro-democracy camp trying to find loopholes in the bill and proposing dozens of amendments to redraft most of the clauses.

Five days after the July 1 rally, the chairman of the Liberal Party, James Tien Pei-chun, resigned from Mr Tung's cabinet and the party dropped its support for the bill. By then it was already too late for the government, which decided to defer the bill after a midnight emergency meeting in the early hours of July 7, and Mrs Ip announced she was quitting for personal reasons.

Since then, support for the enactment of the bill has plunged in the pro-Beijing camp, and Mr Tung admitted he had to change his governing style.

Yesterday marks the end of the latest chapter of the saga - at least until the government deems the political tide more favourable.