Politics & Policy

Article 23, Skidoo

The threat to human rights in Hong Kong.

Has the image of the lone man who bravely stood before a People’s Republic of China tank in 1989 in Tiananmen Square been forgotten?

Fourteen years later, China’s regime — under the guise of a new law, “Article 23″ — is again preparing to crush the liberties of its citizens, this time in the once-free enclave of Hong Kong.

The odds are that, as ever in this totalitarian society, the PRC will win. But not without a fight from the locals. And, probably, and sadly, not with meaningful opposition from the United States.

On, July 1, the island’s most respected political leaders — courageous figures such as Martin Lee and Emily Lau — as well as leaders from religious groups and human-rights organizations, will be joined by an anticipated crowd of 100,000 Hong Kongers in Victoria Park to voice their collective opposition to the proposed law, officially known as Article 23 of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This July 9, little more than only six years since domain over Hong Kong’s was passed from Great Britain to the PRC, Article 23 is expected to pass the Hong Kong Legislative Council, a body composed largely of PRC apparatchiks.

Banning treason, sedition, theft of state secrets, and subversion, the bill’s foes say it will threaten the civil liberties of Hong Kong’s body politic as a whole. Many expect Article 23 will be used by Hong Kong’s government to subvert civil liberties, stifle free speech, and put a stranglehold on the free flow of information.

There is growing international concern over the law, and even on Capitol Hill, where Congress recently approved House Resolution 277 — a preemptive slap at Article 23 which supports freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. During debate on the proposal, Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa) — a proponent and sponsor of the resolution — talked about the existing, increasing, and even deadly threats to religious freedom on the island: “I rise to join in solidarity with the often lonely voice of Hong Kong’s Bishop Joseph Zen, who is a tireless advocate of the people of Hong Kong and a vocal fundamental critic of the Chinese government’s disregard of the fundamental rights of the governed. Bishop Zen risks his own life by speaking with moral authority, and his commitment to protect the dignity of each human person should be supported.”

But despite the passion of King’s words — he was one of only a handful of members of Congress who spoke on behalf of the resolution — there is a somber mood over the inability of the U.S. to achieve any constructive diminishment of the PRC’s brutal disregard of basic human rights.

True, in years past, House debates on China’s “Most-Favored-Nation” trade status included hours of passionate speeches by dozens of congressmen opposing the PRC’s brutal treatment of its own citizens. Also, in years past, Republican and Democratic leaders opposed efforts by former president Bill Clinton to “construct[ively] engag[e]” Beijing’s government.

But as the limited debate on House Resolution 277 shows, that level of passion on Capitol Hill is on the wane. And in politics — even international politics — where perception is reality, that seeming loss of interest could have nasty ramifications for the people of Hong Kong.

True also, over the past decade the U.S. State Department has issued numerous annual reports detailing further erosion of human rights and religious freedom in China. But despite the onslaught of studies and reports and documents, the situation there continues to worsen. The only serious threat the State Department seems to pose is paper cuts.

Al Santoli, a top official at the American Foreign Policy Council, is troubled by the failure of the U.S. government to forcefully advocate on behalf of those in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China whose freedoms are threatened. “America has traditionally stood for the ability to speak on behalf of democracy and freedom. It is unbecoming of the American tradition for any administration to turn its back on severe religious persecution and human rights abuses. It’s a sure way for the U.S. to lose international credibility,” Santoli observed. “This administration is falling into the same trap as the Clinton administration. By appeasing Beijing, they believe it will result in more moderate behavior by the government. With all of their ongoing crackdowns on religion and media, it is obvious that China is laying backward — not moving forward at all.”

A major recent victim of the PRC’s ongoing crackdowns has been the Falun Gong, the quasi-religious organization whose members report that Hong Kong’s authorities are mouthing Beijing’s vicious propaganda condemning the group. They believe that, if passed, Article 23 will be used to suppress their movement, and to brutalize their practitioners.

“We appeal to the White House and U.S. Congress to speak out in defense of freedom of conscience, expression, and association for Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong,” says Erping Zhang, executive director of the Association For Asian Research and a leading expert on human rights in China. “The suppression of Hong Kong Falun Gong practitioners today means the suppression of other innocent groups tomorrow. As leader of the free world, the U.S. government must uphold its principles for liberty and freedoms for the people of Hong Kong by taking concrete measures” — political and economic — “in pressuring Hong Kong authorities to give up Article 23.”

Formal religious groups are also dreading the passage of Article 23. Evangelical Christian Pastor Bob Fu says that in Hong Kong “there has been a systematic takeover of Christian churches” by the Chinese Communist party (CCP),” and he worries for the fate of Christianity there if Article 23 is implemented. “Will Hong Kong’s Christians be faced with the fate of South China Church’s Pastor Gong Shengliang? He has been sentenced to life imprisonment, and is being tortured and ill-treated by prison officials in Jingzhou prison in China’s Hubei province. We must all pray for him.”

Pray we must. But some wisely counsel to do more than pray — Hong Kong’s Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen told the South China Morning Post: “It is very sad that something so absurd can happen in Hong Kong. How can we swallow it? I’d like more people to become angry and to speak like me.”

People such as Colin Powell and George Bush? Hong Kongers are waiting.

Ann Noonan, New York coordinator, the Laogai Research Foundation.


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