segunda-feira, 16 de março de 2009

The Macau precedent

The Wall Street Journal Asia (*)
March 16, 2009

Macau is a tiny place, but like Hong Kong, another special administrative region of China, it can be a bellwether for how much freedom Beijing will tolerate within its own borders. With the passage of national security legislation last month, Macau's authorities have set a dangerous precedent for Hong Kong -- and a damning example of China's broader intolerance for basic civil liberties.

The issue at hand is Article 23, a section of Macau's mini-constitution that requires the legislature to enact a law to "to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets." Hong Kongers erupted into protest over Article 23 in 2003 and the government backed down. Macau's authorities waited until the furor passed and then late last month put the enabling legislation through the rubber-stamp parliament.

Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Edmund Ho, whose term expires this year, calls Article 23 a "constitutional responsibility." A more honest assessment would call Article 23 what it is -- a provision that protects a dictatorial government from criticism. According to the new law, Macau's citizens can now be prosecuted for possessing "state secrets." Hong Kong resident and journalist Ching Cheong, who worked in China, spent nearly three years in jail after a sham trial centered on such a "crime." It's now possible that journalists in Macau will face a similar threat.

Just as seriously, Macau's residents are also subject to prosecution for "sedition," or the act of inciting treason, secession and subversion. The law vaguely defines these activities as "public and direct incitement." Would posting a news story on the Internet on Tibet or the Falun Gong be considered sedition? How will Article 23 jibe with Macau's Article 27, which protects "freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration"?

The answer is that in a one-party state, it's the authorities who make the rules. Yesterday Macau immigration officials barred two Hong Kong legislators from entering Macau, along with three other democracy advocates. Earlier this month Macau also banned a former Hong Kong Bar Association president, Johannes Chan, from entering the territory, citing "internal security." Macau denies the rejections are related to Article 23, even though yesterday's group was traveling to Macau specifically to protest the law and Mr. Chan lobbied against Article 23 in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong lodged weak protests with Macau and China over both incidents, explaining in a press statement that Macau "has its own immigration control." Western democracies have been largely silent on the incidents and the passage of Article 23. The local U.S. consulate didn't even issue a statement. A spokesman told us that the Macau government conducted a "public consultation" on the law before it was passed. Forget that Macau isn't a real democracy and the Beijing-influenced legislature tweaked the bill only slightly in response to local concerns.

Macau doesn't boast as robust a democratic movement as Hong Kong enjoys. That's partly the fault of Macau's former Portuguese masters, who tried to hand the territory back to Beijing as early as 1974. It's also due to a limp press and the overwhelming influence China exerts over the territory's tiny economy. The Macau Article 23 precedent shows how fragile the protection of civil liberties is in today's China. Hong Kongers should beware.

(*) Os negritos são da minha responsabilidade.

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