Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) toured Hong Kong yesterday and praised its work in fighting SARS as the territory prepared to mark the anniversary of its July 1, 1997 return to Beijing's sovereignty with a massive protest against a new security law planned to coincide with the celebrations.
Protest organizers say about 100,000 people are expected to demonstrate during the festivities today against an anti-subversion law due to be passed this month that many fear will curtail human rights in the territory.
It is feared the new law -- which bans treason, sedition, theft of state secrets and subversion -- could curtail freedoms previously guaranteed for 50 years in the "one country, two systems" principle under which the city was returned to China.
But reportedly Wen said Sunday that China was committed to preserving Hong Kong's autonomy.
"We will unswervingly commit ourselves to the policies of `one country, two systems,' 'Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong' and high degree of autonomy," he said.
The South China Morning Post commented yesterday that even though his statement sounded familiar, "Mr Wen hit the right note, as it marked the first time that an official of his stature from the nation's new leadership has articulated this reassuring message on Hong Kong soil."
Asked by reporters if the planned mass protest could scare away foreign businesses, Wen avoided a direct reply but said yesterday, "we hope Hong Kong will create a stable environment beneficial in attracting foreign investors."
Hong Kong is required to pass the anti-subversion law in terms of the agreement on its return to China on July 1, 1997. The legislation is expected to be passed on July 9.
The US and Britain have joined international human rights and press groups to condemn the planned laws.
On the first day of his tour Sunday, Wen attended the signing of a free-trade pact between China and Hong Kong, the first Beijing has forged since it joined the WTO 18 months ago.
The pact will take effect on Jan. 1, 2004, giving firms and professionals in the former British colony a head start in the race to establish a footing in the potentially lucrative Chinese market.
Yesterday, Wen visited the site of one of Hong Kong's worst outbreaks of the SARS virus that killed 297 people here, and a busy container port.
The premier inspected the Amoy Gardens housing complex where faulty sewage pipes led to some 329 people becoming infected with SARS in March, 42 of whom later died.
Wen praised Hong Kong's fight against SARS with a handwritten note honoring hospital workers, but one said he had come too late now that the crisis has ended.
"If you come, you should come earlier," health-care assistant Kwok Yan-ngor told a reporter after she spoke briefly with Wen about conditions in a hard-hit SARS ward at the Prince of Wales Hospital.
"People are dead already," Kwok said. "What's there to talk about?"
Hong Kong was removed from a World Health Organization list of areas affected by SARS a week ago.
It is Wen's first visit to Hong Kong since he assumed the post of premier in March.