Tung Chee-hwa was adamant. 'Let me stress again,' he said. 'The issue is not about the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. 'The issue is not about human rights. We, as a community, should not be distracted by comments here in Hong Kong and overseas. What kind of society do we want in the future? What is the best way forward? 'I suggest we are a mature enough society to decide by ourselves. After all, it is the people of Hong Kong who have created this modern economic miracle over the last 50 years.' So said Mr Tung, the leader-in-waiting, in his first major defence of China's decision to scrap crucial parts of two ordinances on rights to freedom of association and assembly when he received a Leader of the Year award in January. This week, he laid down his thoughts for public consultation in a document called Civil Liberties and Social Order which aims to get the community to re-focus on the 'restrictions' on civil rights allowed under international standards. Before their release, some analysts anticipated that the proposed changes might just be cosmetic. But, in reality, the consultative exercise marks a bolder attempt to address some fundamental issues which are set to emerge when the concept of 'one country, two systems' is put into practice after July 1. It goes far beyond the 'practical need to plug a legal vacuum' and 'strike a balance between civil liberties and social order, and between personal freedoms and public interests'. Underlying the proposals are fears that Hong Kong will become a so-called political city, through which foreign political forces would use local political groups to topple the nation. As independent legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee pointed out in this paper yesterday, China's fears about Hong Kong being used as a base to subvert the country colours the whole issue of civil liberties in the territory. It is against these fears that the communist regime inserted the Article 23 in the Basic Law at the final stage of the drafting process in the wake of the June 4 suppression. And it is the provisions of Article 23 that lay down the limits of political activity in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) under the broad principle of 'one country, two systems'. Under the article, the SAR should legislate to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition or subversion against the Central People's Government or the theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political bodies from conducting political activities in the SAR, and to prohibit local political bodies from establishing ties with foreign political bodies. In the context of Article 23, the major purposes of the proposed 'restrictions' on civil rights and liberties in the consultative paper are clear. They aim at striking a balance between civil rights and liberties in the capitalist SAR on one hand, and national security and interest of the communist-ruled state on the other. The incorporation of Article 21 and 22 under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is an attempt to justify the 'restrictions' on rights to form associations and demonstrate on grounds such as 'national security' and 'public safety'. Forget about incidents such as blocking the traffic and protesters' use of lifts, the real fears are more about political forces that Beijing considers as a threat to 'national security'. Such fears are, to a great extent, shared by Mr Tung and his top advisers. The consultative document says: 'Hong Kong is extremely vulnerable to external forces. As a community, we must ensure that there are sufficient safeguards in our system to maintain law and order at all times, and to react to unforeseen circumstances swiftly and effectively.' Speaking in an interview in October, Mr Tung was already indicating that Hong Kong people should be alert to 'international forces' trying to use the territory in a campaign to isolate China. His top aides also said privately this week that some political forces in Taiwan have spoken against the policy of 'one country, two systems' and called for Taiwan's independence. Putting a ban on local political groups forging ties with political bodies in Taiwan was therefore necessary. Under the formula of 'one country, two systems', Mr Tung and Beijing are adamant that the SAR can make significant contributions to the modernisation of China on the economic front. But it should not become a political city, nor a base for activists campaigning for the independence of Taiwan and Tibet. This is the future Hong Kong that Mr Tung and his top advisers, as well as Beijing's leaders, see under the five-star flag of China. The flurry of criticism and doubts raised in the past few days on the proposals have indicated that the community is more concerned about immediate threats to its rights and liberties than by the more remote danger of being used by foreign forces to topple the mainland. Like it or not, the 6.4 million people here are more concerned about the differences in lifestyles under the 'two systems' than about the obligations of people under 'one country.' Mr Tung and Beijing leaders might genuinely believe that the proposed restrictions are already quite 'relaxed' and moderate. And it is a matter of course for the people of Hong Kong to have an obligation to uphold 'national security' and the notion of 'one country' after July 1. Few dispute that. At stake is whether the new laws will become so restrictive - in both their legal expression and the public's perception - as to whittle down the legitimate rights and liberties of the people. Notwithstanding the ambiguities and loopholes in the language of the consultative paper, the political reality is that the timing, itself, is not conducive to an early consensus on the best way forward. The closer the handover date comes, the greater the likelihood that any moves to tinker with the present laws on human rights will raise more jitters among people here over the protection of their civil liberties and rights after the changeover. Mr Tung and his cabinet have been put in a no-win situation, given the unenviable task of formulating replacement laws after the decision by the National People's Congress Standing Committee. Pressing ahead with the present proposals will create more unwanted political disputes and invite even stronger public resistance. But any move to water down the amendments drastically might not be acceptable to Beijing. Mr Tung and his cabinet would be seen to have suffered a serious blow if they bowed to pressure to backed down from their proposals. In separate remarks, senior Chinese leaders have vowed to give a free hand to Mr Tung and the SAR to run its own affairs. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Thursday: 'The central Government will not interfere in the right of the SAR government to draw up specific laws and regulations.' The ongoing consultative exercise will be the first down-to-earth test of how Mr Tung plays the game of brinkmanship needed to strike the right and acceptable balance within the community, and, more significantly, between the territory and the mainland.