- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2004

HONG KONG — China dampened Hong Kong’s hopes for full democracy yesterday, saying the territory must get Beijing’s permission before trying to change the way it selects its leader and lawmakers.

The Chinese government’s National People’s Congress issued the ruling in an interpretation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s miniconstitution. The Basic Law holds out full democracy as a goal in Hong Kong but sets no timetable.

“A locality has no fixed power,” said Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary-general of the NPC’s Standing Committee. “All powers of the locality derive from the authorization of the central authorities.”

Democracy advocates charged that Hong Kong’s guaranteed autonomy had been shredded by the mainland’s rubber-stamp lawmakers, who met in secrecy.

Hong Kong officials acknowledged the public wants reforms and pledged to explore possibilities that would meet Beijing’s approval.

But critics were doubtful and predicted Hong Kong might be headed for more political turbulence.

“This clearly sends the message that the central government does not respect or trust the Hong Kong people,” said Richard Tsoi, a top organizer of a July march by 500,000 people that stunned the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.

The rally forced Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to back down from an antisubversion bill viewed by many here as a threat to freedom. It also spawned a “people power” movement now focused on gaining full democracy.

After 150 years as a British territory, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 with guarantees of considerable autonomy for 50 years under an arrangement called “one country, two systems.”

The Basic Law is the document that governs those rights for Hong Kong’s people, and is administered by Mr. Tung, who was effectively chosen by Beijing.

The Basic Law says local officials can approve changing the way the territory’s leader is chosen, but the NPC’s Standing Committee must consent. The law also allows local officials to approve changes for forming the legislature, but Beijing must be notified “for the record.”

Mr. Tung said at a news conference that Beijing’s ruling was welcome because it established firm legal guidelines that will help the territory proceed with democratic reforms.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Hong Kong’s success depends on the autonomy envisioned by Beijing when it created the one country, two systems framework.

“Our aim is to support that kind of autonomy, that kind of prosperity, that kind of stability consistent with the Basic Law,” Mr. Ereli said.

Beijing said its most powerful legislative committee had to lay down the law on democratic reforms to ensure a smooth political development in Hong Kong.

But critics in Hong Kong contended that the central government violated the Basic Law by declaring more power than the law allows while stifling demands for democracy.

“They have now changed the goal posts,” said lawmaker Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s best-known opposition figure, who has been branded a traitor by Beijing.

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