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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 3:46pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

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 : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 2:35am

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

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This article is now closed to comments

kazu.nagai.7
This guy often writes self-congratulatory **** about Hk.
For years, so-called elites like him were blind to the extreme poverty and preverted capitalistic system of HK. Now some appear to have woken up.
Basic question to Mr Chan. What is the point of having the freedom to vent through the media and on the streets when Hongkongers don't even/and never have rights to vote for their chief executive and government?
Taiwan has that. South Korea has that. Even Singapore has that for years. Many parties fighting for a parlimentary seat compared to the US, where you only have a choice of two parties! And yet the writer has the nerve to highlight that HK is some distance ahead of the Lion City in the "freedom stakes".
Freedom according to whom?
This false pride in so-called 'freedoms" in the city according to Western standards is so typical of this writer.
On the one hand he talks about indices being compiled by people with ideological agenda and in the next breath he clings to their results like gospel.
What a joke. His ramblings are no more than coffee shop chatter.
It amazes that SCMP can afford him space to utter rubbish
A Hong Konger
It is extreme naive or utterly disingenuous to suggest that Hong Kong's freedoms are not under attack. Unless the aims of the central government have changed and it is to keep Hong Kong as a pseudo colony in perpetuity or grant it full independence, then it is the goal of the central government to align Hong Kong politically, culturally, ideologically (if that still exists) and legally with the mainland as part of it's ultimate goal of integrating HK into China. Everyone knows this, yet there pervades a denial even among intelligent people that the ship is not sinking and that if we ignore the goals of the 9,596,960 sq km elephant in the room things will be fine, indeed we ought be satisfied with this crippled form of government that expects us to be obedient colonial subjects awaiting to realise the 'pride and dignity of being Chinese' and happily accept the death of our home that we have worked so hard to build.
Fortunately most people in HK aren't that stupid and are aware that freedoms lost (however trivial seeming it may be) will never be won back given the status quo. To Mr. Chan I say, the wolves are among us, and being a member of EXCO, you are one of them, especially as you are blind to our lack of democratic rights, civil rights and right to housing since you claim to "be interested to know how" we are less free than other places.
babyhenry
So being Chinese is death to our home... well GO DIE NOW.
A Hong Konger
babyhenry: I never said that, I said the integration of HK to China will REQUIRE Hong Kong to loose our legal system, our autonomy, our currency, our economy, our language, our own government, our identity and adopt that of the mainland. It will require HK to essentially become a second Guangzhou. That's the whole idea of Joint Declaration, Deng actually said that was the goal. Of course It will be the death of HK. Are you that ignorant and stupid? Have you not paid any attention for the last 30 years?
I NEVER said that being Chinese is the death to our home. I never even thought that. But obviously someone as mind bogglingly stupid as you just did for some reason puerile, ill-conceived reason, or perhaps your English is just hopeless. Why don't you 'GO DIE NOW' with your family... You can translate that into Cantonese yourself.
blue
"Deng actually said that was the goal"
Can you please provide a source?
Also I do not think HK will lose its legal system. This would be a massive headache and would create civil unrest. That's the last thing any ruler wants. As long as Beijing has final say, it's a "White Cat / Black Cat" situation. Beijing has enough things to worry about, they don't want to create more trouble for themselves.
Let's discuss this rationally rather than using sensational language.
cheeky
The call for one person one vote is good but those who are asking it should also be pragmatic enough to understand this remains a long term goal. Good job keep it up but please don't make this your only fight for freedom. If you want to serve Hong Kong, please also pester the government to build more affordable flats on the one hand and give them more support and ideas to nullify the power of property developers. Property developers could well be behind varioius schemes to thwart the government from finding more land to build low cost flats or even government initiatives to reclaim land. They are enemy number 1 not Beijing.
Byebye
Your remarks ~ "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?" ~ this is a very good comment for those who fight about freedom; please make sure it is the right freedom we are fighting for.
rucoruna
Happy to give a few obvious examples, Mr. Chan:
-Freedom to elect the people who make the decisions in the SAR (representative democracy, universal suffrage).
-Equality of rights: All are equal before the law but some more equal than others (domestic helpers, LGBT rights, etc).
-Right to affordable and decent housing.
But I agree that the economic freedom index is ideological, and in fact a high ranking may come at the expense of other political and civil rights...

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