Lurking somewhere at the bottom of the copious election coverage was a little phrase which caught my attention, and should perhaps have caught more from other people. Nakade Hitsujiko, a candidate in Tai Kok Tsui, wished to have on his election material, which is printed and distributed free by the Registration and Electoral Office, the slogan: “build Hong Kong city state”. The slogan was removed by the REO. Mr Hitsujiko, who changed his name from Chung Ming-lun before the election, was what we press scribes tactfully refer to as a “colourful” candidate, occupying a point somewhere on the spectrum between Martin Bell and Screaming Lord Sutch. That is no reason for depriving him of the rights enjoyed by other candidates, and the question which arises is: by what right does the REO censor candidates’ election material?
The REO’s view, reportedly, was that the slogan “violated the Basic Law”, and in particular that part of it which states that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the People’s Paradise. I have several problems with this. The first is that the Basic Law, along with the bits about inalienable membership of the motherland, also states that citizens of the SAR have freedom of speech. What that means in most jurisdictions is that people are free to argue peacefully for changes to the constitutional arrangements, however fundamental they may seem to be. Citizens of Texas are free to agitate for secession from the Union, citizens of the UK are free to call for the abolition of the monarchy, and so on. The Basic Law does not state that no citizen may utter any phrase or publish any slogan which is inconsistent with the Basic Law itself. What is not forbidden should be allowed, in our system.
Another way of looking at it is to visit briefly that platitude which states that freedom of speech is not total. It may be restricted in pursuit of other important purposes. These are enumerated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance, and concern things like the protection of reputation, the right to a fair trial, public order and national security. Clearly the only one which can arise in this context is the last, and I do not see how anyone could argue with a straight face that China’s safety is threatened if the phrase “Hong Kong city state” finds its way onto a District Council election leaflet. After all, Hong Kong’s status is not a matter which is going to come up in District Board meetings anyway. Mentioning it serves the useful purpose of giving electors a clearer idea of the thoughts and character of the person soliciting their votes. I realise that quite a lot of candidates do not wish the electorate to know too much about them, supposing that their cuddles with Communism might be an electoral liability. But it is no part of the REO’s job to make this compulsory.
It should also be borne in mind that the slogan “build Hong Kong city state” does not necessarily imply secession from China. It is common in federal systems to have states which are still part of the country. California and Bavaria are examples. A city state does not have to be like Singapore, with its own flag, anthem, army and UN seat. There are other models. Something like the old “Imperial Cities” in the Holy Roman Empire might suit, for example: the possession of a charter securing rights to self-government in some areas and a direct allegiance to the emperor rather than his regional representatives. Someone who hankers after a Hong Kong city state might yearn for independence. Or he might yearn for that high degree of autonomy in everything except defence and foreign policy which at one time we were told we were going to get.
In fact, at some risk of violating the Basic Law, at least in some people’s view, we might go further and say that all the large successful countries in the world have federal systems of one kind or another and it would be greatly to China’s benefit if its political culture was encouraged in that direction. All the countries to which one might wish to emigrate are either small or federal or (Switzerland) both. Looking at the 5,000 years of China’s history we must suspect that, under the smooth surface of official history, the years of disorder and multiple centres of power were times of dynamism and innovation, and those in which power was precariously held in the centre saw stagnation and stasis, culminating eventually in a successful foreign invasion. The repression required to suppress dissent inevitably also suppresses innovation and creativity.
Still, these larger considerations have very little to do with the question before us, which is whether the REO, finding a reference to “Hong Kong city State” in an election leaflet, has a right to remove it. Clearly it does not. We may concede some right to object to matter which is obscene, blasphemous or defamatory. But an election is an exercise in free choice and that choice should be as unfettered as possible. Also there is no legal right for the REO to interfere in this way. The despair-inducing thing about all this is that the REO’s record in defence of electoral honesty in other matters – like voter registration – is abysmal. And what is the point of putting a retired judge in charge of these things if they are just going to make up the rules as they go along.