Wed, Apr 07, 2004 - Page 1 News List

China calls tune for Hong Kong's election reform

REUTERS , BEIJING AND HONG KONG

China, fearing growing calls for greater democracy in Hong Kong, stamped its authority on the territory yesterday by ruling that it alone will determine the shape and timing of elections.

The widely expected ruling came as a blow to pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong ahead of legislative assembly elections in September.

But some analysts in the city said Beijing's move could backfire, triggering a protest vote in favour of pro-democracy groups in the September poll.

"Beijing is assuming total control over political change in Hong Kong," said Hong Kong political commentator Andy Ho.

"It is trying to cool aspirations for democracy here, telling Hong Kong that it has control, but instead of doing that it is heating things up," he said.

Financial markets were, however, unruffled and there was little sign of tension in the territory.

A top committee of China's parliament yesterday passed a review of Hong Kong's "Basic Law" or Constitution, giving Beijing full control over the territory's reform.

Tsang Hin-chi (曾憲梓), a Hong Kong member of the top-level Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, said the ruling was for the good of the people.

"It is very mild and very clear," he said. "People should not blindly oppose it, but put the best interests of Hong Kong people first."

Hong Kong's Constitution says the city's nearly 7 million people can directly elect their leader and all their lawmakers from as early as 2007 -- something they have never done before either under the British or after the handover.

But that prospect is remote now that Beijing has the overriding authority to decide if electoral changes are even needed.

China said it was acting to promote democracy by clearing up confusion and putting an end to arguments over disputed articles of the Basic Law. It said the ultimate goal of the Basic Law was the direct election of the chief executive and lawmakers.

"It [the interpretation] will be conducive to explaining questions, stopping disputes and correctly understanding and implementing the Hong Kong Basic Law and to maintaining the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong," Xinhua news agency quoted parliament chief Wu Bangguo (吳邦國) as saying.

But Hong Kong's leading pro-democracy lawmaker, Martin Lee (李柱銘), said the interpretation undermined the rule of law.

"If they can do it now, they are saying `we will do it as we please in the future,'" the Standard newspaper quoted him as saying.

"If that is so, then no freedom is safe because every clause in the Basic Law is subject to interpretation by the Standing Committee without notice," Lee said.

Hong Kong returned to China with the promise of 50 years of autonomy. While it can change its election laws from 2007, Beijing said its approval is a prerequisite.

Some analysts say Beijing, unnerved by huge democracy protests in Hong Kong last year and the post-election turmoil currently gripping Taiwan, has ruled out direct elections in the near future.

The Democratic Party vowed to fight on for full democracy, calling the interpretation a bid by China to protect the unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) and prevent pro-Beijing parties from losing ground in September's elections.

The leaders of China's parliament interpreted two Basic Law clauses as meaning that Beijing has the authority to decide if political changes are needed and can veto anything it does not want.

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