After keeping silent for two days, the Hong Kong government is giving signals that it will respond to the strong public sentiments against the proposed national security legislation. The Executive Council held an emergency meeting yesterday and the government has served notice that officials will speak in a motion debate in the Legislative Council this afternoon on how it might respond to demands made by more than 500,000 people who took part in a rally against the legislation on Tuesday. It is looking like the start of a victory for the people. And it could be a new start for the beleaguered government. The signs are that the government is likely to shelve controversial provisions that would empower the secretary for security to outlaw a local organisation that is subordinate to a mainland organisation whose operation has been banned on national security grounds. A public interest defence may also be introduced for the offence of disclosure of state secrets. These changes, if they were made, would be welcome steps towards assuring the public that the government is listening. These moves should help defuse the controversy and calm public discontent. Scrapping the power to outlaw organisations would help maintain freedom of association and stop Hong Kong from going further even than the mainland. As human rights campaigner John Kamm pointed out in an article published on our Insight page yesterday, Chinese national security legislation criminalises acts, not organisations. There is no provision under mainland law to ban an organisation on national security grounds using the kind of proclamation and certificate system provided for under the Hong Kong bill. For the mainland to introduce laws to criminalise organisations, which would criminalise membership of these organisations, would be a setback for human rights there. It would be most ironic if the mainland were to take such a step back because of a law passed in Hong Kong, which has a more liberal legal system. The proposed legislation's provisions on unauthorised disclosure of state secrets have caused a lot of anxiety among journalists - and, presumably, civil servants. Anyone who is a passive receiver of confidential information obtained through illegal means could be prosecuted, even if he or she did not take part in the illegal act. Prosecution could follow even if disclosure would serve a public interest, such as uncovering official misconduct. Introducing a public interest defence would balance the state's legitimate right to protect sensitive information against the public's right to know. Even if the government agreed to changes on these two issues, legislators should see to it that the bill's other controversial provisions are not passed without the closest scrutiny. For example, the clauses giving emergency powers to the police to conduct search and seize operations without obtaining court warrants remains fundamentally flawed in principle, even though the power could only be exercised by senior police officers at the rank of assistant commission or above. While most Hong Kong people would rather not have national security laws, Article 23 of the Basic Law states that Hong Kong has a constitutional duty to pass such laws. It was a concession by the central government to allow Hong Kong to do so 'on its own' instead of imposing its preferred version on us. But we should recognise the room to move that phrase has given us. It would be a serious dereliction of duty if the government and the legislature failed to treasure Hong Kong's autonomy by passing legislation that did not contain the best means of protecting our freedoms. National security legislation serves 'one country'. Protecting our traditional rights and freedoms preserves 'two systems'.