Hong Kong lawmakers on Tuesday hit out at renewed proposals for controversial anti-subversion legislation in the semi-autonomous Chinese city after it was shelved following mass popular protests in 2003, as a former leader of the city said the law must be passed eventually.
Popular anger over proposed Article 23 legislation on national security and subversion-related crimes culminated in mass demonstrations on the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China on July 1, 2003.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters who marched feared the bill would erode civil liberties and media freedoms after promises from Beijing that these would remain unchanged following the 1997 handover ending more than a century of British rule in the territory.
But former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who resigned early in 2005 following the government's embarrassing defeat over Article 23, said on Tuesday it was "a matter of time" before national security legislation was enacted in Hong Kong.
Tung, who as vice-chairman of the parliamentary advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), is unlikely to be speaking without the backing of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said "national sovereignty and security" cannot be compromised.
"The Hong Kong government has the responsibility to pass national security legislation locally, so this is a matter of time," Tung told a news conference on Tuesday.
"Our country is starting to become stronger, and its importance is growing on the world stage," Tung said. "From Hong Kong's point of view, we can't act as if we were outsiders."
"We should know that this is important, and that one day we will have to enact this legislation."
Drop the stance
He called on Hong Kong lawmakers to drop their "anti-communist" stance and focus on the well-being of its citizens by supporting Beijing's electoral reform plan, which sparked the Occupy Central, or Umbrella movement, last September.
"I will do my best to convince the pan-democrats myself," Tung said.
Tung also defended incumbent chief executive Leung Chun-ying's attack during a policy speech on a Hong Kong University student publication for discussing notions of "self-determination," after the leader's comments drew fire for interfering with journalistic and academic freedom.
Tung's comments came after trade unionist Stanley Ng, a Hong Kong delegate to China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), said on Monday that he and other NPC members would suggest that China incorporate its own draconian security laws into the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Leung on Tuesday said he was unaware of the details of Ng's proposal.
"The Hong Kong government hasn't carried out any research into nor preparations for a national security law," Leung told reporters. "Neither does it have any plans to enact Article 23 legislation."
Veteran lawyer, rights activist and pan-democratic lawmaker Albert Ho said Ng's comments were "extremely left-wing."
"These comments are, of course, coming from the extreme left," Ho told RFA on Tuesday. "The biggest problem [since the Occupy movement] is that all sorts of extreme leftists are coming out and having their say."
He said Hong Kong's laws must all stem from the Basic Law, and that importing mainland Chinese law isn't an option.
Ho said he believes a national security law is unnecessary for Hong Kong.
"It's been so many years since the handover; I can't see that this is a pressing problem, nor even that it's necessary," he said. "We already have our own very effective laws for ensuring Hong Kong's stability and security."
Meanwhile, Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal profession in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo), hit out at Tung's comments as "highly inappropriate."
"What he said was highly inappropriate, and also inaccurate; really very wrong indeed," Kwok said. "It's up to the people of Hong Kong to decide when to legislate, and how to legislate."
"It can't be done through a back door."
He said Tung's press conference was a clear sign that Leung's administration had lost the trust of the majority of Hong Kong people.
Pan-democratic lawmaker Kenneth Chan agreed, saying it is unprecedented for a former chief executive to comment publicly on government business.
"There has always been a convention that former chief executives and high-ranking officials refrain from commenting on the chief executive's policy address," Chan said.
"It makes people suspect that a gerontocracy is starting to form in Hong Kong politics, which is not helpful to the development of democracy," he said.
"Everything he said must have been approved by Beijing...so he is going to give the impression that Leung's administration is on its knees, to the extent that Beijing needs to come out in its support via a third party," Chan said. "This is something of a crisis of governance for Hong Kong."
Earlier this month, Chinese officials hit out at a lack of "patriotism" in Hong Kong's education system as a major factor behind the Occupy Central movement, reigniting a heated debate over Beijing's shelved "patriotic education" proposals for the city's schools.
The Occupy Central movement began as riot police tried to disperse umbrella-wielding protesters with tear-gas and pepper spray on Sept. 28, prompting hundreds of thousands to turn out in a call for the public nomination of candidates in the 2017 elections for Leung's replacement.
The NPC standing committee announced on Aug. 31 that while all of Hong Kong's five million voters will cast a ballot for the first time in the poll, they may only choose between candidates vetted by a pro-Beijing nomination committee.
Pan-democratic politicians and Occupy protesters have dismissed the Aug. 31 ruling as "fake universal suffrage," and called on the Hong Kong government to renegotiate the election arrangements with Beijing.
They camped out on major highways and downtown intersections for 79 days before being cleared away under a court order.
Ready to try again
One of a handful of remaining pro-democracy protesters camped outside LegCo on Tuesday, who gave only her surname Cheng, said Ng's comments signaled that Beijing is ready to try again with Article 23.
"Their Aug. 31 ruling is part of this bid to reintroduce Article 23 legislation," Cheng said. "What we don't want to see is Hong Kong turning into somewhere that is ruled by them," she said, in a reference to Beijing.
"Hong Kong was told that it could govern its own affairs for at least 50 years, was it not?"
However, Chinese officials have said that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the handover arrangements is "void" and that China answers to no one in exercising sovereignty over Hong Kong.
Reported by Yang Fan and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.