Monday, August 07, 2006

TODAYonline: HK passes surveilance laws
HK passes surveillance law
HONG KONG — Hong Kong legislators passed a controversial surveillance law yesterday after a protest walkout by opposition lawmakers, who said it undermined civic freedoms.

The bill will allow the authorities to monitor private communications with telephone wire taps, email scans and other covert techniques, and was adopted after a marathon three-day debate.

It comes at a time of raised concern over the role the government has played in the lives of people in this former British colony since sovereignty switched to communist China in 1997.

The measure was passed without a vote cast against it as opposition lawmakers, angry that none of their 200-plus amendments was adopted, boycotted the final vote.

"This is a bad day for human rights in Hong Kong," said legislator Lee Wing-tat, chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party.

"It will mean that anyone who is active within civil society — lawyers, legislators, political party activists and even workers of non-government organisations — will, from now on, live in fear of investigation by the authorities." — AFP

CNA did a fairly good clip on this yesterday and the one comment that stuck in my mind was when they reported that one of the senior MPs who also happened to be a veteran lawyer confessed that he could not understand the text. Which should be a sign if this were an actual negotiations for a contract to go back to the drawing board.

But what I want to blog about today is whether distrust of power i.e. the tendancy to believe that power will be abuse is a logical and rational position to take, or whether this is nothing more than a manifestation of paranoid delusion.

If you can't guess my answer, you're probably new to this blog =P But the answer is that it's a perfectly reasonable position to take and a logical and rational one to boot.

Obviously, history (as usual) teaches us a number of valuable lessons, and first and foremost is that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolute ~ Lord Acton. The rise of Constitutionalism (and the revolutions in France etc.) were a reaction to absolutism and in particular, the wielding of power in an arbitrary fashion, not least in an oppressive manner. Constitutionalism (which by the way was imported into ALL the Commonwealth nations upon their independence) believes that checks and balances are necessary and one of the ways in which this can be achieved is through a guarantee of fundamental liberties in addition to a separation of the powers of government into its component parts with each part to check and balance one another.

But that doesn't necessarily answer the above issue on the bit about surveilence and one of the things that we should consider is that it has been and will continue to be abused. Let's take the case study of the US in the context of the Civil Rights Movement.

As we no doubt should or ought to know, the FBI under Hoover ran a programme on surveilance on most public figures in the States. The belief was that it was to be used not only to keep tabs on such people, but also to use such material to engage in backmail if necessary.

One of those figures monitored was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who together with Rosa Parks, are probably the most iconic figures of the Civil Right Movement back in the 1970s. He was also human and engage in a number of affairs, of which because of the surveilance on him, got back to the FBI. But what was truely startling was what the information was used for and why.

In the Select Committee's SUPPLEMENTARY DETAILED STAFF REPORTS ON INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES AND THE RIGHTS OF AMERICANS with respect to Dr. King, we see how there was a "war" against him to "neutralise" him as an effective civil rights movement leader and the emphasis was to "completely discredit" him and his advisors.

From the report we learn the following:
Congressional leaders were warned "off the record" about alleged dangers posed by Reverend King. The FBI responded to Dr. King's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize by attempting to undermine his reception by foreign heads of state and American ambassadors in the countries that be planned to visit. When Dr. King returned to the United States, steps were taken to reduce support for a huge banquet and a special "day" that were being planned in his honor.

The FBI's program to destroy Dr. King as the leader of the civil rights movement entailed attempts to discredit him with churches, universities, and the press. Steps were taken to attempt to convince the National Council of Churches, the Baptist World Alliance, and leading Protestant ministers to halt financial support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and to persuade them that "Negro leaders should completely isolate King and remove him from the role he is now occupying in civil rights activities." When the FBI learned that Dr. King intended to visit the Pope, an agent was dispatched to persuade Francis Cardinal Spellman to warn the Pope about "the likely embarrassment that may result to the Pope should he grant King an audience." The FBI sought to influence universities to withhold honorary degrees from Dr. King. Attempts were made to prevent the publication of articles favorable to Dr. King and to find "friendly" news sources that would print unfavorable articles. The FBI offered to play for reporters tape recordings allegedly made from microphone surveillance of Dr. King's hotel rooms.

I think at the minimum, what this demonstrates is that it is definately not beyond the pale that "enemies of the state" that these surveillance law are supposed to target (see NSA wiretapping the co-option of SWIFT) may easily be peverted for misuse, particularly if you suddenly find yourself out of favour (for whatever reason) with the administration.

And that is sufficient cause for concern.

But let's transpose this to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong and I think this possibility is elevated by a good many times especially when we consider the raison d'etat of the CCP i.e. to stay in power to fulfil the Communist Revolution. We also know that surveillance is part and parcel of the regime e.g. 50,000 people to man the firewall to keep "dangerous" information of spreading via the internet, inwards or out; tracking, arresting and detention of "dissidents" etc.

Thus the new law arguably posses a huge threat in that region especially given that China is not shy about sheding its velvet glove for a steel fist and to change the Basic Law (the pseudo-Constitution of the SAR which "guarantees" its freedoms) if need be.

Which is why, I personally have an innate distrust of power and I feel much safer when the governing of power is based upon mistrust than trust.


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