Now's not the time to enact Article 23

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2011, 12:00am


With the annual July 1 march approaching, many participants will have vivid memories of the protest in 2003 that defines the event for them. With youth activism on the rise, however, there will be many young marchers for whom the question of new national security laws that prompted 500,000 people to take the streets back then, may not seem relevant. There is reason to reflect on the issue, though. One possible candidate to be the city's next chief executive has unexpectedly reignited the debate. And Beijing's head of Hong Kong affairs has been quick to play it down.

Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, former Legislative Council president and member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, said the issue of new national security laws required by Article 23 of the Basic Law would be an unavoidable challenge for the next government. 'It's the government's responsibility to enact Article 23...' she said, adding that it was not 'a monster as imagined by many'.

The official visit last week by the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya, presented an opportunity for Beijing to comment. His response eventually came in response to a reporter's question in Macau. Wang's answer may have seemed off the cuff, but it was clearly considered.

He said Hong Kong should introduce such a law, but only after the city had reached a consensus on the issue. He would leave it up to the next administration to decide whether it wanted to take up this duty.

His remarks suggest Beijing is in no hurry. And that is reassuring, because there is no reason to be. The reality is that we have lived without a new national security law for 14 years since the handover. There is no threat to national security in Hong Kong that is not already covered by existing laws. So there is no urgent need for the government to revisit this sensitive issue, which sparked public disquiet in 2003 because of the perceived impact the government's proposals would have had on civil liberties.

Those proposals, involving offences including treason, secession, subversion, and the theft of state secrets, were shelved and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen made it clear long ago that he was not going to revisit Article 23 during his time as chief executive.

The Basic Law makes it clear that Hong Kong has a constitutional duty to legislate under Article 23. But our city is currently facing many changes as it progresses through political reforms and faces up to a range of social and economic issues. It would not be helpful for the government to have to press ahead with an issue that would be likely to act as a distraction and risk further polarising society.