Sunday, May 9, 2004

HONG KONG — Clamping down further on Hong Kong’s autonomy, Beijing warned the territory’s legislature yesterday it has no right to criticize the central government’s decision to rule out full democracy in the near future.

The state-run Xinhua news agency quoted a top official with China’s liaison office in Hong Kong as saying local lawmakers would be acting unconstitutionally if they consider any motions that express “discontent with” or “condemn” China’s ruling on democratic reform.

It was the first such warning since the territory reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Another top Chinese official also branded the legislature’s democracy advocates “bananas” — yellow-skinned Chinese on the outside, but with Western beliefs inside.

“These people, who badmouth China and Hong Kong, are sinners of the Chinese nation,” Cheng Siwei, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, was quoted as saying by the Chinese newspaper Ming Pao. “They are just like bananas, yellow outside but white inside.”

The statements came after Hong Kong’s Legislative Council president, Rita Fan, rejected an attempt by opposition lawmakers to raise a nonbinding motion criticizing Beijing’s decision.

Pro-democracy forces charge that Beijing unilaterally rewrote the territory’s constitution, the Basic Law, when it ruled out direct elections of Hong Kong’s next leader in 2007 and all lawmakers in 2008.

They accused the central government of rolling back freedom of speech, one of the Western-style civil liberties guaranteed to this former British colony.

“It’s trying to curtail our right of free speech, step by step, from the legislature, the media and, eventually, the public at large,” said Albert Ho, a pro-democracy lawmaker who tried but failed Friday to launch the motion attacking Beijing’s decision on election rules.

Another opposition lawmaker, Lee Cheuk-yan, said the Xinhua report “sounded an alarm” that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being eroded rapidly.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law holds out the possibility of full democracy in the next few years, but China’s top legislative panel ruled on April 26 that the move must be delayed because it would create the risk of bringing social or economic instability to the territory.

Hong Kong people have been clamoring for the right to choose the successor to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who has been in charge since the 1997 turnover but is enormously unpopular.

Beijing has viewed the push for democracy with great suspicion. The central government has been alarmed by the political situation in Hong Kong since last July 1, when 500,000 people marched to show opposition to an anti-subversion bill they viewed as a threat to freedoms. Mr. Tung was forced to withdraw the measure.

Ordinary voters will be allowed to choose 30 of 60 Legislative Council seats in September, up from 24 last time.

Although the other 30 seats will be chosen by special-interest groups — such as businessmen, bankers and doctors — who tend to side with Beijing, the central government is worried that Hong Kong could get a legislature that won’t back Mr. Tung.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers frequently introduce motions attacking the territory’s government, but they invariably fail — as have recent efforts to formally criticize Beijing’s ruling on democracy.

The mainland official quoted by Xinhua, who was not identified by name, said Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, known as LegCo, must hold its fire against the democracy ruling.

“The moves are against the constitution and the Hong Kong Basic Law,” Xinhua quoted the mainland official as saying. “They do not accord with the LegCo’s constitutional status as a local legislature and go beyond the limit of its duty and authority.”

The official called the ruling against full democracy “lawful, rational, reasonable and just,” and said Hong Kong’s legislature has no right to attack the top mainland panel that issued it, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

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