After the National Party’s ban and new calls for Article 23 legislation, Demosisto should watch its back
Michael Chugani says new Article 23 legislation can be expected to target not only pro-independence groups, but also localists, and this would signal the end of the freedoms that make Hong Kong unique
Is advocating independence the same as supporting self-determination? Where does localism fit into the mix? All three are buzzwords in Hong Kong politics but dare we use them so freely any more now that Beijing has made clear its intolerance of such words?
Can teachers allow students to debate the pros, cons and futility of independence? Will election candidates who advocate self-determination in the context of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong be disqualified? Is it legal for young people to promote localism to prevent mainlanders changing the city’s culture?
The government has stirred the pot by banning the separatist Hong Kong National Party. That makes it duty-bound to tell us what exactly we can say about independence without landing in jail. Just lecturing us that free speech is not absolute is too wishy-washy.
We all know libel laws limit free speech, but the government has imposed political limits too by banning the National Party. We need total clarity on these limits, especially because Beijing loyalists are agitating afresh for Article 23 national security legislation.
Does the government still subscribe to the general rule that free speech is free speech if it is non-violent? Or are Hongkongers now expected to adopt a politically driven opaque new rule that limits even non-violent free speech?
By banning the National Party, the government has sent a message that it wants Hongkongers to shift from their understanding of free speech towards a more authoritarian definition. Loyalists justify this new red line by noting that even Western democracies have banned pro-Nazi and terrorist groups. We can ignore such arguments as puerile because these groups are associated with violence, whereas the National Party is not.
What we cannot ignore is how Beijing loyalists envisage any new version of Article 23 national security legislation to be. The abandoned 2003 legislation criminalised violent seditious acts but not peaceful free speech, which means if the law existed today, the government could not use it to ban the National Party.
Since Hong Kong lacks Article 23 legislation, the government used the colonial-era Societies Ordinance, intended for triads, to outlaw the party. Any future Article 23 law will have to be far tougher than the 2003 version for the government to target non-violent speech or acts it considers a threat to national security.
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A tougher law would mean curtains even for groups such as Demosisto, which opposes independence but advocates self-determination. Actually, Demosisto’s death knell sounded last January when the government disqualified member Agnes Chow Ting as a Legislative Council candidate.
By barring her, the government equated self-determination with independence. That means it has to ban Demosisto sooner or later or face awkward questions on why it banned the National Party but not Demosisto. But banning it would ignite a firestorm because, unlike the National Party, it enjoys popular support.
Will future national security legislation cast an authoritarian net that limits even internet and social media free speech? Will it allow the authorities to use CCTV cameras to identify and punish students who put up independence posters on campuses?
It's too Orwellian to even think about. But if you thought the 2003 legislation, which drove half a million protesters to the streets, was draconian, any new version will have to strike at the heart of our core values to ban non-violent speech. I am in no way defending the National Party. I am defending free speech.
As I have said before, the National Party is a loony group that was dead on arrival yet the government kept resuscitating it. That forced the media to focus on it, giving loyalists ammunition to revive Article 23. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is right to resist.
Article 23 is a quagmire. Hongkongers would never accept a version that changes their way of life. Nor should they be asked to. The loyalist camp has the votes to force a draconian one through. Doing that would snuff out the light that makes Hong Kong so special.
Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host