Published: 22:22, June 9, 2024
West’s criticism of Hong Kong’s anti-subversion laws is hypocritical
By Ronny Tong

The resignation of two UK judges from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal sparked another wave of anti-Hong Kong sentiment. Practically all Western media commentaries on the resignation are negative, and the central theme is unanimous: Beijing is “clamping down” on Hong Kong and the freedoms of the people here, so why should foreign judges “lend legitimacy” to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government?

Faced with such overwhelming attacks, what can you say? We have been losing the media war, and this is to be expected. But deep underneath this widespread sentiment in the West is the deliberate oversight of one important fact: China has resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong! One only needs to compare the various offenses under Hong Kong’s Crimes Ordinance — enacted by the UK government in the British era — and the recently passed national security laws to see they are much the same, but the protected target is, of course, different: Then, it was the UK; now, it is China.

Let us, for example, look at the offense of sedition, an offense much sneered at in the West. The Crimes Ordinance, enacted by the UK in Hong Kong, provided that one cannot by speech or publication or other means “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of Her Majesty … or against the government of Hong Kong”, or to incite Hong Kong people “to attempt to procure the alteration, otherwise by lawful means, of any matter in Hong Kong as by law established”, or “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice”, or “to raise discontent or disaffection amongst” the people of Hong Kong, or “to promote ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong”, and so on. 

In the 1967 riots, the target of violence was the UK government, and the Crimes Ordinance and in particular, the offense of sedition, was widely used against the rioters. The UK government at that time did not say the Crimes Ordinance was unjust, or that it was contrary to human rights, or that the UK judges (they all were) should resign and go home. Nor did it try to remove or amend that law to bring it in line with modern concept of human rights when it agreed China should resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. Nor did it object when China proposed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that all existing laws of Hong Kong should remain. Indeed, the UK government insisted that all laws, including the Crimes Ordinance, should continue.

So, is Hong Kong not free? Well, only in relation to undermining national safety. Period. I've tried to explain this to everyone who cares to listen. Those who are here understand; but those overseas do not

Still on the subject of sedition, just to put the matter in perspective, the UK did not abolish it until 2011, after much local discussion. Other common law countries like Canada, India, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, and to some extent Australia all have similar offenses, not to mention civil law countries like Germany and Spain. So why target Hong Kong?

Looking at the issue broadly, one is inevitably driven to the conclusion that the West thinks that as far as Hong Kong is concerned, it is OK to prevent subversion of the UK, but it’s not OK to prevent subversion of China. At the heart of this discrimination lies the ideology that China is the enemy and not to be tolerated so that any attempt to subvert it is right and is a “freedom” that should be preserved and even respected. Somehow, any encroachment of this “freedom” defines how free Hong Kong is. This is of course nonsense, and the truth is fortified by the fact that if you are interested in the affairs of Hong Kong, you will find that the Hong Kong SAR government is constantly being criticized, sometimes even ridiculed, over all its policies publicly, be it by the media or in various social media platforms. The Hong Kong SAR government usually will respond by modifying its policy. The continued delay of the imposition of charges in the collection of garbage is a very good example.

So, is Hong Kong not free? Well, only in relation to undermining national safety. Period. I've tried to explain this to everyone who cares to listen. Those who are here understand; but those overseas do not. I have received messages and calls from friends and relatives overseas asking if I am safe and if I should leave Hong Kong. My think tank, Path of Democracy, is undertaking a study on how national security laws are affecting the trading environment in Hong Kong, and nearly all representatives of local chambers of commerce relayed to me similar experiences that they all had to explain to their friends and relatives and work colleagues overseas that they feel more safe in Hong Kong than any other places in the world. Truth is, Hong Kong is freer than you think.

No one wishes to ridicule those who take a harsh view of Hong Kong. We, in the Hong Kong SAR, and indeed in China, are not like them. We do not openly accuse the US of allowing guns for sale, which costs so many American lives or encourages thefts and robberies to run rampant; we do not accuse the UK of ignoring human rights in the enactment of its national security laws or for sending immigrants to a Third World country. We look at facts, and we respect different views and values. We just hope others do the same.

The author is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, a member of the Executive Council, and convener of the Path of Democracy.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.