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There’s a certain irony in the verbal support being offered by the U.S. government and members of Congress for democratic activists in Hong Kong who are fighting a quixotic battle against Hong Kong government plans to pass a sedition and treason law for the territory and former British colony. Among the biggest concerns to Hong Kong democracy advocates–and target of U.S. critics–is a portion of the law that would allow the Hong Kong authorities to ban, i.e. outlaw, any organization associated with some organization inside China deemed to be subversive by Chinese government authorities.
Let’s think about this.
Under the USA PATRIOT ACT, federal authorities are allowed to arrest people who are connected with overseas organizations which the U.S. authorities in their wisdom (but without any hearing or court ruling) decide are “terrorist.”
Indeed, under current, post 9-11 law, if an American citizen gives money to an organization in the U.S.–say a charity — which then gives that money to a foreign organization which, unknown to the U.S. donor, has been labeled “terrorist” by the State or Justice Department (perhaps even in secret), that person could be arrested and charged with being a terrorist or supporter of terror.
Exactly how different is this from the proposed Hong Kong law, known as Section 23 (a reference to its proposed position in Hong Kong’s “constitution,” called the Basic Law), to which the U.S. is objecting?
The remarkable thing is that in Hong Kong, a city of 7 million that is not known for its political activism, half a million people–a tenth of the adult population of the so-called Special Administrative Region–came out on a sweltering day on July 1, despite police obstacles and alternative inducements like free movie and amusement park tickets offered by an anxious government, to protest the proposed new security law.
In the U.S., so far, most people don’t even know what the USA PATRIOT Act is, and among those who do know, many are completely untroubled by its draconian features. While the Hong Kong security law has been bitterly debated for the past year and has been intensely covered and analyzed in the local media, the USA PATRIOT act–a treacherous undermining of the Bill or Rights crafted by Attorney General John Ashcroft– was passed by a craven Congress, almost without dissent, and with no debate, two months after the 9/11 attacks, and has subsequently largely been ignored by the U.S. corporate media.
Why the dramatic difference in public–and media–response to these two draconian laws in the U.S. and Hong Kong? Probably it’s the fact that the majority of the population in Hong Kong is composed of people who either fled China’s totalitarian society or who are one generation removed from people who fled that police-state political system (many too, remember how Hong Kong’s British rulers used their own sedition laws to terrorize people in the colony over the years before limited democratic rule was introduced). The whole populace–even those who are generations removed from China, have only to look across the border at Shenzhen to be aware of what happens when authorities are handed the right to arrest people for thought crimes, or for supporting organizations that oppose the ruling political elite. In the U.S., unless you are a member of a minority group, or are an immigrant, you and your more recent forebears have probably never experienced such a thing. White middle-class America simply has no experience with the midnight knock on the door.
Hong Kong, which is now under Chinese sovereignty, will probably end up with a nasty sedition law on its books, but the dramatic July 1 protest has clearly registered with authorities in both Hong Kong and Beijing, and it is unlikely that Section 23 will lead to any serious restriction of freedom in the city for at least a while. Neither government wants to risk even larger protest at a time that the city is reeling from the SARs epidemic and an Asian economic crisis. Massive protest against the new law has made it, at least in the near term, unenforceable.
But what about the U.S.?
Public quiescence about the federal government’s ongoing assault on civil liberties has encouraged the Bush Administration and the Department of Justice to propose a strengthening of the USA PATRIOT ACT courtesy of a second measure, dubbed PATRIOT II, with Ashcroft claiming that he doesn1t yet have enough extra-judicial power to spy on and detain Americans.
We’re unlikely to see millions taking to the street to object to passage of PATRIOT II.
Maybe we who do oppose the Bush Administration’s treasonous assault on our treasured rights and libeties should turn to China and Hong Kong for help. Perhaps their governments and diplomats would be willing to send letters to Washington objecting to these dreadful laws.
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html