Right of Passage

The sad passing of local democracy icon Szeto Wah provides a rare opportunity for Hong Kong to claw back part of its high degree of autonomy that seems to have been surrendered in recent years. And that is the right to determine who can and cannot enter our city and on what conditions.

Uncle Wah was almost unique in political circles here for having an unblemished record of public service. No one doubted his integrity, his sincerity, or the strength of his convictions. He earned respect from all corners of the political spectrum.

Nor was his fame limited to Hong Kong. As leader of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, Mr Szeto played an important role in helping many of those involved in the 1989 protests in the Mainland to escape overseas after the June 4 crackdown. Naturally, those who now live safely in exile wish to pay their respects to the elder statesman by attending all or some of the ceremonies to commemorate his life and mark his passing.

Their desire to come to Hong Kong for that purpose leaves our Minister for Security, Ambrose Lee, stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, attendance at funeral ceremonies of someone who has had a major impact on your life is a perfectly natural thing for people from all cultures to want to do.

On the other hand, the one absolute about Hong Kong's privileged position under the "One Country, Two Systems" formula is that on no account should we be a base for subversion against the Central Government.

How can we square this circle?

We should start by being honest with ourselves and for that purpose we need more information.

The Mainland immigration authorities are understood to maintain a list of persons who they regard as subversives and who they bar from entering the Mainland. The first question is whether the Hong Kong Immigration Department has been formally informed of the names on this list. If yes, the natural follow up question is whether the list was accompanied by a directive to apply the same ban here, or whether it was simply a factor for Hong Kong to "take into account" in reaching decisions on individual cases. In the former case, we ought to be told the legal authority for such application. In the latter case, it could be argued that transmission of the information was quasi legitimate but it could also be argued that the pressure thereby exerted unduly fettered the Director of Immigration in exercise of his discretion. His appointment is after all one that needs to be approved by the CPG according to the Basic Law. The same applies to the Secretary for Security who would no doubt be giving the Director a policy steer.

If the local authorities have not been formally notified of the names on the list - and the various official statements to the effect that the Director deals with individual cases on their merits in accordance with established policies and procedures would seem to indicate that he is at least purporting to act on his own - then other questions arise.

The most important one is whether the Director is only barring persons who he genuinely believes to be coming here for subversive purposes, or whether he and the Minister are trying to second guess the reaction of the Mainland authorities - the so-called "preemptive cringe" -- and give priority to protecting their own positions.

In the former case, we could expect the number of persons being refused entry to be very small indeed. After all, a person who could be regarded as subversive on one side of a border need not necessarily be regarded as a subversive on the other side, depending on the purposes of his visit and any conditions attached to his permission to enter.

It is the latter case that would concern most people in Hong Kong. If the Director and Secretary are afraid of losing their jobs (and if their fear is well founded) then the temptation would be for them to cast the negative net widely so as to avoid any possibility that Mainland authorities would be displeased.

In fairness we should have some sympathy for the Minister as he tiptoes through this minefield. After all, it is his legs that will be blown off if he takes a wrong step.

But if in doubt he should remember that his first duty is to the people of Hong Kong who pay his handsome salary. His job is to defend their security, but that term includes not only their physical safety but also their way of life. They deserve to know if their rights and freedoms are still "secure".

Attendance at a funeral or similar commemorative event is not, by Hong Kong standards, a subversive act. On that basis, the overseas dissidents must be allowed to enter. Then they must behave themselves.