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Bowing to Beijing

The "Wall Street Journal" - 25 may 2001 (extract)

Hong Kong authorities appear to be on the verge of following Beijing's lead and banning the FalunGong spiritual movement. Such a move would be the gravest blow yet to the principle of "one country, two systems" and would effectively downgrade the territory to the status of just another mainland city, making it difficult for foreign governments to justify treating it as an entity distinct from the rest of China.

Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa seems to be looking for a way to ban the group while still preserving the appearance that all is well with Hong Kong's rule of law. The head of the civil service Donald Tsang announced last week that the government is considering an anti-cult criminal law similar to those drafted in some Western countries; the main model is reportedly a law now before the French legislature.

In order to justify such a move, the government is gearing up a campaign to portray the Falun Gong as a threat to Hong Kong's people. This week, Secretary of Security Regina Ip explained that the government is considering legislation because FalunGong is a "spillover" from the mainland, where it has been declared an "evil cult." Mr. Tung has laid he agrees
with that label, and a few days ago added that the self-immolations of five people, said to be FalunGong members, on Tiananmen Square in January reminded him of the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978. He called the group "a mix of cult and politics" and said he had to watch its members because "I don't want them to do irreparable harm to Hong Kong."

Adopting a law like the one under consideration in France would represent an attack on Hong Kong's freedoms. The law is vague enough about what constitutes a cult to allow serious abuses of power by officials, and it is ill-advised even in France. But at least there it can be counterbalanced by the forces of democracy, since French citizens can use the ballot box to remove from power a government that enforces the law too harshly. No such possibility exists in undemocratic Hong Kong.

Moreover, the law would immediately pose a problem for the Hong Kong judiciary, which would be called on to judge whether it violated the freedoms guaranteed in the Basic Law, the territory's post-handover constitution. The local courts deservedly enjoy a reputation as the finest in Asia, but since the 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty the highest body, the Court of Final Appeal, has had its wings clipped on constitutional matters by the National People's Congress in Beijing.

Just to be absolutely clear, the FalunGong poses no threat to Hong Kong. Its local members number a few hundred, and it has never shown any propensity for violence. Indeed, FalunGong's teachings prohibit violence, and even in mainland China, where authorities have persecuted the group ruthlessly, the practitioners have refused to lash out.

Other local religious groups, including the Catholic Church, have come to Falun Gong's defense, recognizing that any government action against the group would erode religious freedom for all.

There can be no mistake, an anti-cult law would be a crossing of the Rubicon, showing that Hong Kong is willing to throw out the principle of "one country, two systems" in order to please Beijing. lt would draw down condemnation on the Tung administration from every government and organization that monitors Hong Kong's autonomy and human rights, hurting the city's reputation.
And it would even do economic damage, by throwing into doubt Hong Kona's commitments to honor a whole range of her promises that underpin its status as a reliable base for doing business. The message is clear: FalunGong members should be left to practice their religion in peace…

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