How Hong Kong can create the right conditions for Article 23 national security legislation in 2019

  • Eugene Kin-keung Chan says the Hong Kong government should set up an influential and broad-based committee, including young people, to listen to the public and explain why a national security law is needed
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 6:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 6:48am

No sooner had Hong Kong said goodbye to 2018 than politically sensitive issues, including the national anthem bill, were put on the agenda for this year. However, although the bill has been described as a potential political flashpoint, it is less controversial and urgent than national security laws, as stipulated in the Basic Law.

Hong Kong has an constitutional obligation to enact national security legislation, regardless of the controversy and political sensitivity associated with Article 23 of the Basic Law. This is a key point that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has repeatedly emphasised.

Upholding the Chinese constitution and the Basic Law is fundamental to being a Chinese national. As Chinese nationals, we in Hong Kong have an obligation to safeguard national security and sovereignty. Few countries in the world are without laws and systems to protect national security against espionage, covert sabotage, sedition, terrorism and so forth.

The disqualification of Eddie Chu Hoi-dick from a rural representative election should remind us that there are some who deploy rhetoric to disguise their pro-independence stance. They refuse to oppose self-determination, a concept that does not exclude independence; they argue that they do not embrace independence for Hong Kong, but do not mind or even support others' pro-independence stance.

Although the government has not set a firm timetable, Lam has stressed there must be an appropriate atmosphere before officials consider tabling a national security bill under Article 23. Lam is right to draw our attention to the challenge of finding “the right time” and a “good atmosphere”.

Time to use Article 23 as a bargaining chip

There are two potential situations where an appropriate time might arise. First, there could be a serious or imminent threat to national security. Second, when a majority of people in Hong Kong reach some kind of consensus. Even then, economic factors could play havoc with any attempt to pass national security legislation. The thwarted attempt in 2003 is a vivid reminder.

However, it would be too late to enact national security legislation once a real threat was imminent. If a favourable atmosphere is a prerequisite to successful and smooth passage of Article 23, shouldn't we aim to create one? Setting up a broad-based committee to listen to the voices of Hong Kong residents and explain the necessity and worthiness of passing national security legislation under Article 23 could be a viable way to achieve a consensus.

I envision the committee comprising retired judges, community leaders, legal scholars, think-tank professionals and, above all, young people because they are the future of Hong Kong and will live longer under national security legislation. To give legitimacy, the Hong Kong government should be represented or send an official to sit on the committee.

To dispel public mistrust, the committee should be tasked with launching public education and consultation campaigns. It should reach out to ordinary folk, explain the reasons for enacting a national security law, and eradicate any misconception and misinformation about such laws.

Article 23 would be better than current legal uncertainties in Hong Kong

The committee should also establish an open forum for a peaceful and rational exchange of opinions and views, and for the government to address concerns raised and any clarify legal grey areas as far as the application of a national security law is concerned. Social media could be considered as another platform for public discussion.

I also envision that once a general consensus is reached, the committee would produce and submit a report at the end of the public consultation to the Legislative Council, which holds the authority to pass or reject a national security bill tabled by the government.

Some might say it is wishful thinking to try to reach a consensus on Article 23, which is a divisive factor in itself, but as the saying goes, time and tide wait for no man. Hong Kong should not drag its feet on this for another year. Let’s take a positive attitude and get this over and done with.

Dr Eugene Kin-keung Chan is president of the Association of Hong Kong Professionals