SCMP Friday, February 9, 2001
Freedoms in question
The debate over whether to curtail the Falun Gong's activities in Hong Kong is not the first time a law allowing restrictions on local freedoms has stirred up controversy. Last autumn, it was the Public Order Ordinance that became the subject of heated debate after the police arrested six university students for protesting illegally. Now, it is the Societies Ordinance that is at the heart of controversy as pro-Beijing politicians urge Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to use this law to act against the sect.
In many respects, the two laws are similar. Both are key weapons allowing the Government to limit freedom of assembly and association in Hong Kong. Both were relaxed in the final years of British rule by former governor Chris Patten. And Beijing rejected the changes to both laws, which were toughened again after the handover, .
Now politicians, such as National People's Congress (NPC) delegate Tsang Hin-chi and Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee member Xu Simin, are calling on the Government to revoke the local branch of Falun Gong's registration under the Societies Ordinance. They said the sect had deviated from its original registered purpose as a religious body and had changed into a political group.
Mr Tsang said he would take the issue up at the NPC plenary session next month, and Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said last week the Government had noticed the sect had become more high profile recently and that its "spears" were pointing directly at the central Government.
Human-rights activists, on the other hand, pointed out that any strong action taken would raise the debate on the ordinance's damage to civil liberties.
The origins of the Societies Ordinance date back to 1949, when the colonial government was trying to control political groups at the time of the communist takeover of China. It required all local societies to apply for either registration or exemption from this requirement. Societies were not allowed to undertake any activities, other than formally establishing themselves, until they had been successfully registered or exempted.
The registration system was replaced in 1992 by a notification system. All groups were required to inform the Societies Officer in writing of their purpose and give other information. The Societies Officer would then list the names and addresses of all societies for open inspection. At the same time, the controversial provision that allowed the authorities to refuse to register a society if it had links with any political group established outside Hong Kong was repealed.
But these changes provoked strong objections from Beijing and were overturned after the handover. A system of registration was reintroduced under amendments passed by the provisional legislature in July 1997. New grounds for the Government to prohibit a society from operating were also added - including in the interests of "national security" and "protection of rights and freedoms of others". Also, no group can be registered if it is political in nature or has links with a political group in Taiwan or overseas.
This means groups such as the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China - which holds the annual June 4 candlelight vigil in Victoria Park - could have its registration revoked. A group that fails to register or operates without a registration could be fined a maximum of $10,000. This position is in sharp contrast with the situations in other jurisdictions, such as Britain, where people can associate freely without the need to register with or notify the authorities.
"Why do people need to register with the Government when they want to associate with each other," asked Human Rights Monitor's director Law Yuk-kai. "Why do we need to be approved by the authorities?"
Eric Cheung Tat-ming, an assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said the Societies Ordinance adopts an unrealistically sweeping definition of what constitutes a society and so may be difficult to enforce. It says a society is "any club, company, partnership or association of persons, whatever the nature or objects, to which the provisions of this ordinance apply".
But the schedule to the ordinance, which sets out those societies to which the ordinance does not apply, is limited in scope and essentially refers only to companies or other organisations which are required to be registered under other laws or regulations.
"This means that whenever a few people come together for a particular purpose, they will have to apply for registration or an exemption within one month," said Mr Cheung. "And this also means hundreds, or even thousands, of groups in Hong Kong would have breached this law. The definition itself is too broad."
Veteran social activist Ho Hei-wah said such a definition was ridiculous. "Does it mean if I went out fishing every week with the same group of people, then we should do all the paper work at the Societies Office?"
The law is arguably even broader than the Public Order Ordinance, which requires advance notice of a public gathering but does not apply to meetings convened solely for social, recreational, cultural, academic, educational, religious or charitable purposes and does not apply to meetings of 50 or fewer people.
The Societies Ordinance also imposes further requirements: groups must notify the Government of any change of name, objects, office-bearers or principal place of business. But many social, recreational, cultural and religious groups do not have any formal organisation or structure, with their office holders being re-elected as often as every six months, thereby making it difficult to comply with such stringent requirements.
And the Government seems to have tacitly accepted these requirements are impossible to enforce. The police have not charged any group with failing to register, nor have they refused or revoked the registration of any society since the handover.
A police spokesman declined even to say whether the force makes any active effort to check whether local groups are complying with the registration requirements. Instead, he implied the police would only act if a breach was brought to their attention.
"Upon receiving complaints against unregistered societies for failure to comply with the Societies Ordinance, the police will take appropriate action according to the ordinance," the spokesman said. "If criminal elements were detected, the cases would be referred to respective districts for inquiries." He added that since 1998, 4,075 groups had applied to register or be exempted from this requirement.
It appears the authorities fully understand the controversy that any attempt to properly enforce the Societies Ordinance would cause.
The Forget Not June 4 Society, which advocates the end of one-party rule on the mainland, has tried to register for more than two years. But the police have not issued the group, led by political activists Lau San-ching and Leung Kwok-hung, with a registration certificate. Instead, the authorities asked questions about the group's members, income and links to foreign organisations.
Mr Leung, also known as "Long Hair", said they were warned they would be an illegal society if these questions were not answered. But they refused to give a reply because they considered the questions a form of political censorship. However, no charges have been laid so far, even though the group is still operating.
"It is better if they charge us," Mr Leung said. "And I won't care."
Quinton Chan (
) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.