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OCTOBER 13, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 40 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

'This Is an Evil Law'
Students take to Hong Kong's streets

ALSO:
China: At home and abroad, Beijing runs up against strong faiths it cannot shake. And it's not just Falungong

In the three years since Hong Kong returned to China, thousands of people have exercised their right to assemble peacefully. They have protested everything from plunging property values to mother-tongue instruction. Followers of the Falungong movement have done safely in Hong Kong what their comrades in Beijing get arrested for. But last weekend saw something unusual — a demonstration in favor of demonstrations.

More than 300 people rallied against the recent arrest of seven student activists stemming from protests in April and June about tuition rises and the right of abode for mainlanders. They are charged with violating the Public Order Ordinance, which requires that any group of more than 30 people must apply for a permit seven days in advance of a demonstration.

Under the British, the law was even stricter, but in 1996, as they moved to introduce more democratic rights, the ordinance was relaxed. Henceforth only prior police notification was needed. In early 1997 Beijing's Preparatory Committee, appointed before Hong Kong reverted to China, recommended that the old rules be reinstated after the handover. The provisional legislature, apppointed by Beijing to straddle the handover, duly enacted the changes.

Then a surprising thing happened. Nobody enforced them. By some counts, more than 300 "illegal" gatherings have been held, not just by the long-haired radicals of the April 5 Action Group but also by more conservative groups. Since the handover, there have been two exceptions to this tolerance; both involved university student leaders. The arrests raise disturbing questions of selective enforcement of the law, especially as many well-known democrats, such as Martin Lee Chu-ming and Szeto Wah, have ignored it without being arrested. Secretary of Justice Elsie Leung has left this hot potato to the police for now. "The ball is not yet in our court," a spokesman said.

"This is an evil law and there is no reason for us to follow it," said Fung Ka-keung, Chinese University student union vice president. The students are getting wide backing not just from teachers, who recently took out newspaper advertisements voicing their anger and support, but also from the establishment. Chung Shui-ming, who sits on Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's cabinet, urged the government to show leniency so long as student act peacefully.

The issue is now back on the front burner. But how long before the police start enforcing the Public Order Ordinance strictly in order to prove they are treating everyone equally? If that happens, Hong Kong will look more like one country, one system.

— By Yulanda Chung

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