Are Hong Kong's freedoms really under threat?

Bernard Chan says a comparison with others is useful for self-reflection

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

There is a danger that we take international indexes of freedom too seriously. Before Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying gave his policy address last week, some commentators warned that Hong Kong would lose its "freest economy in the world" status if it adopted particular policies on housing.

Let's say there was some sort of government intervention that would clearly benefit the community. Should the government not act, simply to keep the "freest economy" title? That would be absurd.

These indexes are compiled by people with an ideological agenda. What they call freedom is to some extent loyalty to their particular philosophy. Nonetheless, the data used to compile these lists can make interesting reading.

A few weeks ago, researchers linked to Canada's Fraser Institute added an index of personal freedom to the economic freedom index we know so well. Hong Kong comes third in the combined result. This is largely because of our commanding lead in economic freedom; in terms of personal freedom, we come in at around No 50 out of over 120 economies.

This personal freedom index has quite a few surprises. Albania is virtually neck and neck with the US, while El Salvador ranks ahead of Britain. Hong Kong's score is ahead of South Korea, Taiwan and - by a fair-size gap - Singapore. Indeed, Hong Kong ranks second in Asia, after Japan.

Taken as a region, Asia ranks alongside sub-Saharan Africa and comes ahead only of North Africa and the Middle East.

This leads us to the sort of criteria the personal freedom index compilers have used. They have drawn on data in several specific areas, including crime rates, freedom of speech, assembly, movement and religion, and controls on women and the media.

The impression I get is that the index is largely designed to penalise territories where seriously nasty things happen. Things like torture, extrajudicial killing, political imprisonment and female genital mutilation account for quite heavy weightings. Places where such inhumane behaviour takes place predictably make up the bulk of the countries in the lower part of the list.

The differences among the more stable and secure places seem to be largely of degree. Press freedom in Hong Kong, for example, is probably not so very different from that of South Korea or Taiwan, or from, say Britain's or Germany's. One area not covered is corruption; our good record here would probably push Hong Kong's score higher, past some Latin American and Eastern European countries.

Looking at the whole survey, I think Hong Kong comes out of it better than some local critics might think. Some government opponents often warn that our freedoms - especially of assembly and the press - are under threat. But the survey (and personal experience travelling around the region) shows we are clearly ahead of just about anywhere else in Asia.

It is hard to pin down exactly how we have less personal freedom than the Netherlands, Ireland, Norway or Iceland - which all score very high. If we are significantly behind in some way, I would be interested to know how.

I am all in favour of our opposition politicians, civic society, churches, media and other groups being vigilant in defence of personal freedoms in Hong Kong. The reason Hong Kong is one of the freest, if not the freest, place in Asia is not simply because of administrative measures or legislative safeguards. It is because people cherish their freedoms and exercise them responsibly.

But it would be a pity if critics became the boy who cried "wolf". I don't believe our freedoms are in danger. But if you constantly claim they are, who will listen if a real threat ever comes along?

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council