- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2001

Hong Kong legislators, over furious objections of pro-democratic lawmakers, yesterday passed a law that grants Beijing the authority to fire its chief executive at will.
Several hours later in Washington, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa defended the measure in a meeting with President Bush.
Opponents who waged an unsuccessful battle to block the law called it a blow to freedom and the autonomy promised by Beijing when it took control of the former British colony four years ago.
Under the new law, an 800-member committee of Hong Kong luminaries that critics say is biased toward Beijing's interests will choose the territory's next chief executive. If Beijing disapproves, it can then veto the selection by dismissing the new leader.
In Washington, Mr. Tung said he had discussed the new law with Mr. Bush. He then gave reporters a glowing account of life in Hong Kong under Chinese rule.
"I explained [to President Bush] how well Hong Kong is doing and how much we are moving forward, including how strong the rule of law is and how well the freedoms, whether it is freedom of the press and religion, is alive and kicking and doing well," he said.
A senior administration official said Mr. Bush raised questions about religious freedom and the Falun Gong meditation sect, which is banned in China but still legal in Hong Kong.
Mr. Tung, who has publicly questioned whether the sect should be allowed in Hong Kong, stressed that Hong Kong remains committed to "several freedoms," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Tung's opponents in Hong Kong said the new election law will not only please China's rulers in Beijing, but also guarantee Mr. Tung a second five-year term.
Mr. Tung was appointed by Beijing for his first term, which began with the July 1, 1997, hand-over of Hong Kong by Britain. He is expected to stand for a second term.
The bill passed 36-18 after hours of rancorous debate, triggering a walkout by angry pro-democratic lawmakers.
"This is a case where the Hong Kong government has chosen to hand back to Beijing a high degree of autonomy by effectively giving Beijing unlimited power to remove the chief executive whenever it likes," said Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party.
China specialists in Washington also said the bill's passage was cause for concern.
"It is a small but potentially significant signal of yet another encroachment across the dividing line of 'One Country, Two Systems,'" said Bates Gill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Tung met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the State Department.
Mr. Powell told reporters that he and Mr. Tung spoke about human rights in "general terms" but not the bill passed in Hong Kong.
"I made the point clearly to him that in our relations with China, we would always raise human rights issues with respect to individuals and movements that are trying to enjoy free expression and any constraints on that free expression," Mr. Powell said.
Just 24 of the 60 seats in Hong Kong's Legislative Council are directly elected.
The government is proposing to hold the election of the next chief executive by the 800-member Election Council on March 28, 2002.
"I firmly believe that unless and until we have a government that's directly elected by the people of Hong Kong, we do not have a high degree of autonomy," said Emily Lau of the Frontier pro-democracy group.
Political analysts also criticized the lawmakers for the erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy.
"The government should be criticized that in drafting this legislation it has not given top priority to maintaining a high degree of autonomy," said Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University in Hong Kong.
"But I believe the practical political significance is limited because it is understood that Beijing will be very, very careful and it will not try to remove the chief executive without any good reason," he said.
He added that in reality, Beijing has other ways of removing an administrator it found objectionable.
The law had the support of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, the pro-business Liberal Party and some minor political parties.
* This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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