- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

BEIJING — The Chinese government, angered by growing demands in Hong Kong for more democracy, yesterday reasserted its authority over the territory by saying it would review how its leader and legislature are chosen.

Beijing is eager to stamp tighter control on the politics of the freewheeling former British colony that is in theory allowed to govern itself. The move is likely to marginalize the mainly elected government, breaking a promise of a high degree of autonomy when the British handed over Hong Kong in 1997.

Top officials of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament, would next week deliberate on two articles of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

“In interpreting relevant clauses of the annexes of the Basic Law, the NPC Standing Committee aims to put an end to confusions and differences,” Xinhua said in a commentary.

China’s overt entry into Hong Kong politics came shortly before it warned Taiwan that it would act if protests against last week’s disputed re-election of President Chen Shui-bian spin out of control.

The relevant clauses in Hong Kong’s charter to be interpreted refer to amending the method for selecting Hong Kong’s chief executive after 2007, and to the method for forming its Legislative Council and how that body votes on bills.

Beijing’s announcement triggered protests from right groups and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

“They rape the law in the name of upholding it,” said Law Yuk-kai of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. “This is no rule of law, not even rule by law. … It is a mockery of the promise of a high degree of autonomy.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States supports parts of the Basic Law that provide for universal suffrage when choosing the next chief executive. “The Hong Kong people deserve democracy, and we’ve always supported it,” he said.

“A stable, autonomous Hong Kong with the openness of society and openness of markets and the rule of law … is very important to us and it’s also very important to China, and of course, to the people of Hong Kong.”

China’s move — after weeks of angry rhetoric directed at the territory — to reinterpret the constitution comes amid growing calls for universal suffrage in Hong Kong in the wake of protests by half a million people last year.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, appointed by Beijing, swiftly called a news conference to emphasize that China’s parliament is empowered to alter the Basic Law.

“It will offer an authoritative decision on the issue and this will allay any doubts about the issue and will provide a solid foundation by which to take the constitutional development forward,” Mr. Tung said.

Democracy activists have demanded a firm timetable for the democratic election of the territory’s top leadership, including the chief executive post.

Opinion polls show most people in the capitalist territory of nearly 7 million people want universal suffrage but doubt Beijing will allow it.

“Hong Kong was supposed to conduct widespread discussions here first, but it seems Beijing can’t even tolerate that,” said political commentator Andy Ho.

“This will certainly damage the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,’” said Mr. Ho, referring to the agreement that promised Hong Kong wide autonomy after it returned to Chinese rule.

Xinhua did not say how the two articles of the Basic Law would be changed.

However, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Donald Tsang said Beijing was expected to make clear if it would allow direct elections for Hong Kong’s leader and all its legislators from 2007.

“Whether the reforms will include the year 2007 … Beijing’s interpretation will clear these points,” Mr. Tsang told reporters.

Beijing fears the democracy movement in Hong Kong could gather momentum and seep across the border into mainland China, thus has attacked democracy activists and legislators, labeling some as unpatriotic and unfit to rule.

Beijing’s official China Daily newspaper yesterday warned Hong Kong for the first time of the chaos it can expect if it presses ahead with demands for speedy democratic reforms, using the current turmoil over last weekend’s disputed election of Taiwan’s president as an example.

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it was promised a high degree of autonomy for 50 years and the right to elect its own leaders from as early as 2007.

But Hong Kong’s constitution also says Beijing must approve any electoral reforms. Observers doubt China is willing to give its blessing to universal suffrage by 2007.

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