HONG KONG — Human rights advocates Friday braced for their next battle to preserve this quasi-autonomous region's democratic freedoms after the local government said it will soon introduce a controversial anti-subversion law.
"It is time we must do it," Hong Kong Justice Secretary Elsie Leung told reporters gathered outside her office Friday morning amid mounting media speculation that such a move was imminent.
An aide to Leung, who declined to be identified, said consultations "will start soon" to draft legislation defining the crimes of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against Beijing. Any new law would also bar political organizations from establishing ties with counterparts abroad.
Hong Kong's Basic Law, the former British colony's de facto constitution, expressly requires the regional government to enact such legislation. However, it sets no timetable and democracy advocates have consistently viewed any step toward drafting them as a threat to personal freedom.
"It's a rush to legislation that's somewhat sinister," said Paul Harris, chairman of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. "What's the need for this, unless it's to suppress people uttering statements that are politically unpleasant for the government to hear. I think you'll see widespread community concern."
The move is also seen as the latest challenge to the democratic freedoms granted to Hong Kong under the terms of its return to Chinese sovereignty five years ago. That unique experiment--known as "one country, two systems"--has been under sporadic pressure ever since.
In 1999, Hong Kong's independent judiciary was compromised when Beijing overturned a local court ruling on residency rights in the region. More recently, Hong Kong authorities have refused entry to people seen by Beijing as troublesome.
At a hastily called news conference Friday, Democratic Party Chairman Martin Lee cited reports that local government officials had already consulted with Beijing on the issue. He said any new law would be an invitation for Beijing to act against free speech in Hong Kong.
"The first will be the Falun Gong, next would be the Hong Kong Alliance and after that maybe my party," he said. The Falun Gong spiritual movement has been outlawed on the mainland, while the Hong Kong Alliance supports democracy forces on the mainland.
Lee said that a consultative document on the new subversion law had been printed and likely would be presented to a meeting of the region's Executive Council as early as next week. The government declined to confirm this.
"I cannot comment on any timetable for consultation," said Monica Chan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Security, which also would be involved in drafting the law.
Several Western nations have quietly expressed concerns about the possibility of such legislation. Susan N. Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the American Consulate General in Hong Kong, indicated Friday that the U.S. and others would be monitoring developments closely.
"The international community will want to see that proposals for legislation are consistent with international human rights standards and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which Hong Kong is a party," she said.