Magazine article Behind the Headlines

Hong Kong, 1 July 2003-Half a Million Protestors: The Security Law, Identity Politics, Democracy, and China

Magazine article Behind the Headlines

Hong Kong, 1 July 2003-Half a Million Protestors: The Security Law, Identity Politics, Democracy, and China

Article excerpt

Twenty years ago, on 19 December 1984, the UK and Chinese governments signed the Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, affirming that Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong would take effect on 1 July 1997. On that day in 1997 the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) was established under the Basic Law, a "mini constitution" which enshrined the concept of "one country, two systems." It reserved to the People's Republic of China (PRC) responsibility for defence and foreign affairs but otherwise provided the HKSAR with a high degree of independent authority and for the maintenance of Hong Kong's established legal structures and for protection of private property and basic freedoms. These and other matters were clearly covered in the Basic Law, but one particularly sensitive area was left for future action by the HKSAR.

Article 23 of the Basic Law reads: "The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies."

From 1997 until 2002 there was no move to enact the legislation referred to in Article 23. A process then launched under pressure from the PRC led up to a dramatic event on 1 July 2003, when the largest protest demonstration in Hong Kong's history resulted in the withdrawal of a bill respecting Article 23.

The debate over Article 23 was not simply concerned with outlawing subversion, sedition, treason and secession but was also connected to the broader issues of identity politics, patriotism and the prospects for democratization in both Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China. This article delineates the background to the debate, its development after the protests, its underlying implications concerning identity and patriotism, and the debate's consequences for the democratic development of both Hong Kong and China. Finally, this article suggests that the Canadian government may have to devise new ways of coping with Hong Kong's political development, especially because the post-colonial enclave has a large population of Canadians; if their future in the territory were endangered, the situation would demand an immediate response from Ottawa.


In September 2002, PRC officials suddenly raised the issue of the HKSAR's obligation to implement Article 23. Rumours had been rife since the PRC president, Jiang Zemin, had visited Hong Kong in July 2002 and been confronted by a group of Falun Gong protestors. Jiang demanded that the Hong Kong government under the leadership of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa speed up the process of bringing in legislation under Article 23. The mainland security apparatuses, such as the national security agency, were mandated to press the Hong Kong government to fulfill the mission set out in the Basic Law. According to this author's informant close to the top level of the HKSAR government, the Tung administration was originally given a deadline of January 2003 for the legislation to be approved by the Legislative Council (LegCo). (Refer to the Appendix for a glossary of the main government agencies and institutions mentioned in this article.) This demand from the PRC did not recognize the difficulties and realities of Hong Kong politics, whose pluralistic nature and opposing political forces mean that any legislation must be carefully prepared, lobbied and presented. The Tung administration in turn floated the idea that legislation pursuant to Article 23 should be passed by the LegCo and enacted by the summer of 2003. As a result, a timetable was decided between the PRC and the HKSAR, with the public remaining ignorant of these confidential arrangements and decisions. …

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