By staying in Hong Kong, Snowden will shape democracy debate here

Michael Chugani says Snowden's exposé of US spying and his decision to remain here will shape the local democracy debate - but how?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 June, 2013, 2:00am

In the shock-filled days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the US Congress hurriedly approved without debate national security measures put forward by the George W. Bush administration called the Patriot Act, which gave the authorities sweeping powers to spy on people. Human rights groups condemned the act as a violation of civil liberties. But Americans, fearful of further attacks, cared more about security than human rights.

A year after the act came into force, I returned to Hong Kong from the US just as opposition was growing against the Article 23 national security legislation, which the Basic Law requires Hong Kong to implement. It astonished me that democrat legislators were lobbying US congressmen to condemn Article 23 as an abuse of civil liberties. Many congressmen obliged even though the proposed legislation was far milder than the Patriot Act they had rushed through.

I wrote here about the hypocrisy of American lawmakers, but got flak from local democrats who argued that the US government could be trusted with the Patriot Act since it was democratically elected whereas the Hong Kong government was controlled by our communist masters. The whistle-blowing by ex-CIA man Edward Snowden has shredded that argument. Even the democrats are now furious that US spies have hacked into Hong Kong computers.

Snowden's revelations show that a democratically elected US government furtively tracked the phone calls and e-mails of millions of people. This massive surveillance by the National Security Agency has prompted even the author of the Patriot Act, congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, to condemn it as an abuse of the law.

I was working in the US when the September 11 terrorists struck. Like other Americans, I feared future attacks. But the Patriot Act disturbed me. I sensed the potential for abuse. It is no consolation that Snowden's revelations, if true, have confirmed that.

Every country has a right to implement national security laws. Since September 11, many Western democratic nations have implemented security measures that weaken civil liberties. Hong Kong is one of the few places where Article 23 remains taboo. I have said before that we are freer than many societies with democratically elected governments. What we lack is the right to freely elect our leaders, but that is just icing on the democratic cake.

I got flak, too, for saying that. But now Snowden has said virtually the same thing. He said he chose Hong Kong to spill the beans rather than his native US because he felt we were a freer society. His words will ring even truer if the central government has the good sense to allow us a free hand to deal with his case according to our own laws.

Snowden's high praise for our freedoms has opened up a new front in the democracy debate now raging here. The pro-establishment camp could use it to weaken the hand of the pan-democrats pushing for what they call true democracy with the Occupy Central movement. The democrats could use it to strengthen their hand in opposing Article 23.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host.