19 November 2018
Warnings of possible legal action against a pro-independence group have heightened concerns about Beijing's growing influence over Hong Kong affairs. Photo: Bloomberg
Warnings of possible legal action against a pro-independence group have heightened concerns about Beijing's growing influence over Hong Kong affairs. Photo: Bloomberg

What the legal scrutiny on pro-independence group tells us

It is well known that concerns have been growing in Hong Kong over the perceived threat to the city’s autonomy and freedoms as Beijing steps up efforts to tighten its grip on the territory.

While pro-establishment groups see nothing wrong in China’s moves, democracy activists and independent observers fear it will lead to Hong Kong becoming just another Chinese city.

As core values like justice, fairness and transparency are at stake, standing up against Beijing is deemed as a matter of life and death for Hong Kong and all that it stands for. 

What is adding to the worries is the unwillingness of the territory’s government and the elite to defend the rights of local citizens when it comes to dissent and debate over the city’s future.

The issue has gained renewed urgency as the Leung Chun-ying administration appears to be falling in line with Beijing’s suggestions in relation to action against a pro-independence group.

Top government officials have said a new political party, Hong Kong National Party, has been put under scrutiny for possible breach of law as it has advocated independence for Hong Kong.  

Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen and Security chief Lai Tung-kwok said over the weekend that people calling for Hong Kong independence via a new party may be guilty of offences under the Basic Law.

The officials, however, failed explain what specific clauses were breached, or how mere peaceful calls for a new roadmap in relation to the city’s political future can be deemed to be a criminal act. 

By warning of potential legal action against the new group, the government may be crossing a line.

Authorities seem to be forgetting that under the Bill of Rights, free speech must be protected and peaceful political activism tolerated, however unpalatable some people’s viewpoints might be.

Even a former government official has joined the debate, accusing the government of being hypocritical.

Chan Chi-yuen, who had served as a political assistant to the health secretary during the Donald Tsang administration, said authorities accuse someone of breaking the law, but when pressed for an explanation find it hard to answer which specific laws were breached.

That was among seven points he listed out in a social media post Sunday to make a case that Hong Kong is getting caught up in hypocrisy. 

“What has Hong Kong done wrong… so that we are seeing the city fall in all aspects including international perspectives, execution, quality of life and values,” Chan wrote.

Chan is a founding member of Roundtable Group, a group formed by some prominent citizens to discuss issues related to Hong Kong.

His comments on various matters, including those related to youth disaffection and protection of local culture and heritage, have drawn wide attention and shared widely by netizens.

Sadly, what Chan described as a new normal for Hong Kong has already become a reality.

The recent airport incident involving Leung’s daughter, who had some left luggage delivered to her at a boarding gate, has shown how rules can be bent for the privileged few.

But when it comes to any move that poses a threat to Beijing, authorities feel that action must be taken by invoking the city’s mini-constitution.

Under the existing laws of Hong Kong, there is no actually no bar on Hong Kong people from discussing or advocating independence for the territory.

However, government officials as well as some pro-Beijing legal experts appear to have ignored the characteristics of the city’s common law system as they seek to punish groups with extremist views.

Justice Minister Yuen, who is the top official overseeing the city’s legal system, is adopting Beijing’s mindset by condemning people with independent thinking and coming to the conclusion that forming a party to advocate Hong Kong independence is unlawful.

It was indicated that the new pro-independence group could face prosecution under the Crimes Ordinance, including rules pertaining to sedition and subversion.

The official may be following the diktats of his bosses, but what is alarming is that quite a few legal professionals have also not bothered to stand up for freedom of expression rights enjoyed by Hong Kong people.

The threat of prosecution against pro-independence advocates suggests that an atmosphere of “white terror” is sought be created within the community.

Rule of people will take precedence over rule of law, leading to erosion in the city’s core values.

Hong Kong used to be a place where people could discuss anything without the fear of government backlash.

But now the place is sought to be transformed into a “politically correct” city, where all people follow the directions set by the Beijing government.

If anyone doesn’t fall in line, they could face charges of not being “patriotic” to the motherland.

Local elites and business tycoons urge the public to accept and embrace Chinese rule, while they themselves send their children overseas or stash their wealth in foreign tax havens.

That is just one element in the hypocrisy that Chan has sought to lay bare in relation to the current problems in Hong Kong.

If government officials and community leaders seek to preserve their own interests rather than work for Hong Kong’s overall good, it will only make Beijing’s task that much easier to bring the territory firmly under its heel.

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EJ Insight writer

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