As the year drew to a close, the chances that Hong Kong=s autonomy would be maintained after the July 1, 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty seemed slim. The Aone country, two systems@ formula for the post-July Special Administrative Region (SAR) was already being systematically eroded, at least in the area of civil liberties, and the Chinese government seemed intent on repealing provisions in Hong Kong=s Bill of Rights, dissolving the elected Legislative Council (Legco), undercutting the independence of the judicial system and the executive, and curbing freedom of expression and assembly.
Human Rights Developments
In September 1995, Hong Kong had held an election in which the pro-democratic forces won a majority of the twenty directly elected seats on Legco. On March 24, 1996, the Preparatory Committee, a body hand-picked by the Chinese government to handle transition matters, voted to disband Legco on July 1, 1997 even though its members would have served only two years of their four-year terms. The Preparatory Committee decided instead that in accordance with the Basic Law, the document worked out between Britain and China that will serve as Hong Kong=s constitution after July 1, a 400-member Selection Committee would be empowered to select a provisional body to remain in place for one year. An elected body would thus be replaced by an appointed one, and it was not clear whether elections would in fact take place under Chinese rule after the one-year period.
Frederick Fung, chairman of the Hong Kong-based political party called Association for Democracy and People=s Livelihood who cast the one dissenting vote in this process, was immediately disqualified both from membership in the provisional legislature and from a place on the Selection Committee.
The provisional legislature would have the power to pass laws, approve a new budget for the SAR, and repeal or amend any law it deemed contrary to the Basic Law. The original Sino-British agreement to dissolve the legislature on June 30, 1997 and reconvene it the following day with no change in membershipC the so-called through train agreementCwas thus effectively scrapped. Pro-democracy activists and lawyers in Hong Kong voiced fears that the provisional legislature would revive draconian colonial security laws, pass new legislation on sedition, subversion and treason which could be used against the nonviolent political opposition, and institute the death penalty.
In addition to replacing the legislature, China told a Hong Kong delegation in August that it was planning to set up provisional bodies to replace municipal councils and district boards but was Aconsidering@ allowing current members to stay on past 1997.
Freedom of expression also seemed endangered. In April, the deputy director of Xinhua news agency in Hong Kong, which acts as China=s Aembassy@ in the territory, called on the Hong Kong government to Adiscipline@ Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) for failing to give air time on demand to the Preparatory Committee. In June, Lu Ping, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under China=s State Council, warned that after the transition the Chinese government would criminalize not only advocacy of certain viewpoints, such as support of Taiwan or Tibetan independence, but also merely publicizing those views. In July, China=s information minister suggested that after 1997, local journalists in Hong Kong would be well advised to look to the press in China for Aguidance@ on what was proper to report. The Chinese government was known to be keeping a blacklist of Hong Kong journalists; the most common form of punishment for such reporters, according to the 1996 report of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, was simply to deny them entry to China. During 1996, journalists from the Apple Daily, Next Magazine, and Open Magazine were stopped at the Chinese border and forbidden to enter.
China continued to insist that it would not provide reports on the situation of human rights in Hong Kong to the U.N. Human Rights Committee set up under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), in violation of its treaty obligation with the United Kingdom. Although the U.K. is a party to that covenant, and China is not, the two countries agreed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that the covenant=s protections would continue to extend to Hong Kong after 1997. At a meeting in February 1996, China and Britain agreed on a legal mechanism whereby approximately 200 multilateral international treaties would continue to apply to Hong Kong after July 1997; Beijing, however, excluded both the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights from this list.
The fate of some eighty dissidents from the Chinese mainland currently in Hong Kong
was a continuing concern, as human rights organizations and some foreign consulates stepped up efforts to ensure their resettlement to third countries before the 1997 transition.
The situation of Vietnamese asylum-seekers in Hong Kong continued to be grim, as the Hong Kong government stepped up efforts to repatriate all remaining 14,000 residents of the Vietnamese camps before the transition. Conditions for camp inmates were worse than those for convicted criminals in prisons, particularly in terms of overcrowding and sanitary facilities. Violence was pervasive. On May 10, a major riot broke out inside the Whitehead Detention Center, sparked by asylum-seekers who had been denied refugee status protesting forced repatriation. Camp inmates took guards hostage and burned twenty-six buildings and fifty-three vehicles. Hong Kong security forces used no lethal force in quelling the riot, but many observers believed that the inhumane and overcrowded conditions had contributed to the outbreak.
The Right to Monitor
Hong Kong human rights organizations operated freely, although they were increasingly concerned about their ability to do so after 1997. While the Basic Law guarantees freedom of association, it also, under Article 23, bans ties to foreign political organizations, and there is concern that after the transition, the provisional legislature to be appointed with Beijing=s approval might pass legislation that construes ties to international religious, philanthropic, or human rights organizations as Apolitical.@
The Role of the International Community
It was clear that the international community was worried about the transition, particularly after China announced its intent to dissolve Legco. There was also widespread concern about the fate of the Vietnamese boat people.
On June 25, the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate adopted a strongly worded resolution urging China not to proceed with plans to replace Legco. The full Senate passed the measure on June 28. The Clinton administration, while clearly unhappy with the move, refused to take a position on whether abolition of Legco would be a violation of the Basic Law, saying in July that it could not make a legal interpretation on a treaty to which it was not a party.
In the Fiscal Year 1997 U.S. foreign aid bill, signed by President Clinton on September 30, a requirement was inserted requiring Congress to provide additional reporting on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, particularly with respect to the fairness of the election of the chief executive, the treatment of political parties, the independence of the judiciary, and the Bill of Rights. The legislation cited Adeficiencies@ in the report that the administration had submitted to Congress under the terms of the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act.
In July, at the annual ASEAN post-ministerial conference, and again in September at the United Nations, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher raised concerns about Hong Kong with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake had Hong Kong and the dissolution of Legco on the agenda when he visited China in July.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the Japanese government urged Beijing to uphold its international commitments on Hong Kong.On July 28, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer warned China of international concern if pro-democracy members of Legco were not reappointed to the provisional legislature, and on September 16, Jeremy Hanley, a British Foreign Ministry official visiting Hong Kong, said that Britain would continue its efforts to persuade the Chinese government that dissolution of Legco was a Abad idea.@
In July, the Canadian government offered to take mainland dissidents who would face persecution after the 1997 transition.
On July 18, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Vietnamese boat people, condemning the use of violence against asylum-seekers, calling on U.N. member states to offer settlement to those with refugee status, and urging the UNHCR to extend its repatriation program
to avoid deportations by force.