On July 1 last year, more than 500,000 people took to the streets of Hong Kong. It was the sixth anniversary of China’s resumption of sovereignty, and they marched against the Hong Kong government’s proposed national security legislation to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law, the territory’s mini-Constitution. The proposed law contained many dangerous clauses that would have handed extensive powers to the authorities with which to curtail basic freedoms. Although the number of people protesting the legislation vastly exceeded the expectations of organisers and officials, characteristically, they made their presence felt calmly and peacefully, most not reaching their homes until late into the night. The message was clear: the people of Hong Kong had voted with their feet, and the response to the proposed legislation was a resounding “no”. The government had little choice but to withdraw the bill and postpone its enactment.
This year the July 1 march will convey the aspirations of Hong Kong’s people for a more democratic political system. It will also express widespread unhappiness with the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress ruling out universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2007 and all legislators in 2008 through its own interpretation of the relevant articles in the Basic Law. When the Standing Committee reached its decision last April in Beijing, it reasoned that Hong Kong was not politically mature enough to elect its leaders democratically, asserting that a more gradual and orderly process was required. Its decision also emanated from concern expressed by government officials in China and Hong Kong, among others, about maintaining the city’s stability and prosperity.
The Asian Human Rights Commission is based in Hong Kong and therefore is particularly sensitive to the interests of Hong Kong’s people. While agreeing that ensuring stability and prosperity are desirable goals, it holds that a democratic system of government is the best way to achieve these aims, and moreover to ensure that the human rights of people in Hong Kong are protected and furthered. A democratic political system promotes transparency and accountability. It lends credibility and legitimacy. By withholding democracy from the people of Hong Kong, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments are only sowing the seeds of instability and its negative economic consequences by spawning anger and frustration without any institutional outlet.
Hong Kong possesses all the attributes necessary for a democracy to function and flourish. It has a free press and respect for the other necessary freedoms of expression, assembly and association. It has an independent judiciary, the rule of law and an educated population. It also has citizens who have consistently shown that they can peacefully articulate and debate their views. Among these is the desire to elect their government leaders and legislative representatives democratically through universal suffrage. By denying this popular aspiration, the governments of China and Hong Kong may instead provoke anger and generate frustration, which may damage the longstanding practice of open and peaceable public debate in Hong Kong, to a large measure responsible for its present-day stability and prosperity.
On July 1, 2004, Hong Kong’s people will again be voting with their feet. The governments of China and Hong Kong would be well advised to take heed. July 1 is not a threat; it is an opportunity. It is not a challenge to stability and prosperity, but a commitment to maintaining the values and institutions that have made Hong Kong what it is today. The people of Hong Kong feel that they have a way of life worth defending. It is a way of life that has developed not by accident, but by many years of hard work, devising and refining institutions to eliminate corruption and ensure the rule of law. The governments of China and Hong Kong should be heartened by this earnest commitment shown by Hong Kong’s people, and work with them, not against them, to introduce a truly democratic system based on universal suffrage, which will uphold the rule of law and human rights in the territory for years to come.
For more information, please contact Bruce Van Voorhis at 2698-6031 or Wong Kai-shing at 2625-5766.