Like a monster coming back from the dead…

Basic Law Article 67, declaring that no Hong Kong legislators may have right of abode overseas except up to 20% of them, may be less significant than it once seemed. Article 23, on the other hand, is a troublesome, even dangerous relic – a threat in theory to our rights, in practice to our local leaders. The Standard’s ‘Mary Ma’ editorial yesterday raised the possibility of Beijing once more pushing for the implementation of this part of the constitution, which requires Hong Kong at some unspecified time after the handover to pass a national security law.

The late 1987/early 1988 draft of the Basic Law had an Article 22 requiring laws to protect unity of the state…

There were already local ordinances on creepy-sounding subversive activities, originally aimed at suppressing Communist or Kuomintang plots – the sort of draconian laws we joke about Singapore and Malaysia still having. We still have them, too. For example, if I did anything to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of Her Majesty [Rita Fan?] … or against the Government of Hong Kong,” I could be breaking our age-old law against sedition. The difference with Hong Kong is that it is unthinkable that the authorities would try to charge anyone under this legislation.

After a million Hong Kong people marched (and some collected donations, and organized escape routes) in support of the Tiananmen students in May-June 1989, a panicked Beijing rushed to insert a clause requiring a fuller, tougher national security law – Article 23. (The original Article 23 was on right of abode, which went on to create nightmarish problems of its own.) Ironically, the Hong Kong government’s eventual attempt to push the anti-subversion legislation through in 2003 led to Hong Kong’s second-biggest ever protests.

If they had been more relaxed and willing to work with their critics – the lawyers who later founded the Civic Party – Hong Kong’s officials could have succeeded in passing a national security bill; the final version of it, including such safeguards as warrants and jury trials, probably posed no serious threat to Hong Kong people’s freedoms. But instead, the government was nervous, hyper-sensitive about opposition and determined to ram the bill through using its inbuilt majority in the rigged legislature. And the whole thing blew up in its face with the massive 7-1 demonstration, leading ultimately to the toppling of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Since then, our officials have always been at pains to assure us that they have no plans to reintroduce national security legislation. Grumpy, sour-faced old patriots occasionally pause en route to their graves to mumble something about how they should – Macau’s did – but it is pretty clear the very thought of Article 23 strikes terror into the leadership. The Hong Kong public gave their unelected government a stomping it has never forgotten.

So the chances of anyone trying to resurrect the national security law seem extremely remote. Yet Article 23 is still there, and it has huge symbolic significance because so long as it sits there unimplemented, it is testimony to successful popular defiance. When pro-Beijing figures mutter about it as ‘unfinished business’ they have a point. Passage of a national security law is necessary to confirm that the Communist Party is in charge.

In this respect, Article 23 has become another example of the compulsory stupidity that happens when ideologues paint themselves into a corner.

The simplification of Chinese characters took on a life of its own after Communist and other leaders back in the mid-20th Century chickened out of Romanization yet felt a need to boost literacy. A whole bureaucracy set to it, and is probably still there today in some dusty office block. And what did the incessant revisions accomplish? A writing system that is barely, if any, easier to learn for either Chinese or foreigners.

The obsession with reclaiming Taiwan as a sacred duty did not come about overnight. When not dabbling in language reform, the pre-Revolution CCP saw Japanese-occupied Taiwan as similar to Korea: not its business. The establishment of an exiled KMT regime in Taipei claiming sovereignty over all China changed that. But as Taiwan has democratized and evolved into a clearly distinct and de facto independent nation-state, Beijing has redoubled its insistence that ‘reunification’ must and will take place at any cost. To the extent the propaganda works, each generation since the 1950s believes it more fiercely than the last. A mere hint of recognition of the truth is now unthinkable.

The South China Sea is another looming example of a big problem that the CCP made for itself out of short-sighted pig-headedness; maybe the recent resolve shown by the US and ASEAN will convince Beijing policymakers to put the paint down and tiptoe out of the corner while they can.

So Article 23: you’d be crazy to revive it, but at some stage you have to. Chances are, it will be used – possibly as a weapon – when CY Leung and Henry Tang and/or whoever start jostling for Chief Executive in earnest. Pro-democrats can’t wait.

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