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Hong Kong Basic Law

Hong Kong is not Singapore, don’t believe the ‘authoritarian’ hyperbole

John Chan says the freedom of speech enjoyed by Hong Kong’s anti-establishment leaders gives the lie to their fearmongering over the city entering an era of authoritarian rule

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 8:56am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 7:31pm

Since the custodial sentences imposed on young protesters and three student leaders, young anti-establishment leaders have started to use the term “authoritarian rule” to describe Hong Kong’s governance. The last colonial governor, Chris Patten, visited the city recently to boost the morale of its frustrated young leaders. Demosisto leader Derek Lam Shun-hin, during his return visit to Patten at Oxford University, remarked that Hong Kong has become a “dictatorial city”.

By describing Hong Kong in this way, Lam showed himself to be either hopelessly naive, or shamelessly dishonest. The fact that he can make such a remark without fear of reprisal is in itself proof that he is wrong.

In response to the criticism that Hong Kong is under authoritarian rule, taking advantage of the legal system to suppress opponents, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said in late August that Hong Kong was not, and would not be, a city under what she called “authoritarian rule of law”.

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Authoritarian Rule of Law is also the title of a 2012 book by Jothie Rajah, a Singaporean lawyer-turned-academic. The book and other studies demonstrated Singapore’s case of authoritarian legalism, which has successfully made an exception to the general assumption that authoritarianism and rule of law are mutually incompatible. Singapore’s adherence to the rule of law and observance of legal procedures have created an open and fair legal environment, attracting foreign investment and fostering economic development; yet, internally, the rule of law and legal procedures have been used as tools to suppress dissent and curtail freedom and rights.

The 1988 case of Chng Suan Tze versus the Minister for Home Affairs clearly demonstrated this authoritarian rule of law at work. Chng and three other dissidents were arrested and detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a draconian colonial-era law that had been applied to authorise a 23-year detention without trial of an alleged communist insurgent.

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Chng sought a court review of the constitutionality of the arrests. Both the lower court and the Court of Appeal ruled in his favour. The court held that the ISA “giving the executive arbitrary powers of detention” would be “unconstitutional and void”.

To everyone’s surprise, the Singaporean government respected judicial autonomy and complied with the ruling. Chng and the three others were freed.

However, a few weeks later, in January 1989, the court’s decision was legislatively overturned. The ruling People’s Action Party used its huge majority in the legislature to amend the constitutional provisions regarding the ISA, making it constitutional. Chng and the rest were rearrested.

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Using Chng’s case as reference, one can see that Hong Kong is far from qualifying as a city under “authoritarian rule of law”. Anti-establishment leaders can of course cite Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law resulting in the disqualification of six legislators as evidence that “authoritarian rule of law” has descended upon Hong Kong. It is open to debate whether restraining a legislator-elect from insulting or showing disrespect to the sovereign state when taking the oath of office is suppression of their right to freedom of speech.

While Hongkongers must be vigilant against any emergence of authoritarianism, it is equally important that they not be misled by the demagoguery of anti-government politicians’ habitual exaggerations directed against the government, such as the remark that Hong Kong has entered an era of authoritarian rule, or become a “dictatorial city”. Such remarks are nonsense.

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong