Fri, Oct 10, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Premier under fire over HK remarks

AP , HONG KONG

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's (溫家寶) call for "gradual" democracy in Hong Kong drew fire yesterday from opposition politicians, who say it's high time for full democracy now. But others said Wen's remark might be a cautious step forward.

Wen said on Wednesday that Hong Kong should take "a gradual approach to democracy" to protect rights and freedoms guaranteed by its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which took effect when Britain handed this former colony back to China in 1997.

Many here say Hong Kong's move toward democracy has been too slow, with no timetable for letting the territory's voters pick their own leader.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) was selected by an elite committee loyal to Beijing, while ordinary citizens voted for 24 of their 60 legislators.

"What we need is now is full democracy," said lawmaker Albert Ho of the opposition Democratic Party, adding that Wen's remarks "are more suitable for mainland Chinese society."

Under a special deal with Beijing, Hong Kong enjoys Western-style speech and assembly rights not granted in China.

Despite opposition skepticism, some were upbeat about Wen's statement.

"That's a careful and positive comment," said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Prominent rights activist Law Yuk-kai said Wen's remark appeared to mark the first time a Beijing official acknowledged that democracy was needed to protect freedoms and human rights.

"It's an important shift that the Beijing officials are now talking about democracy, not just about economic development for Hong Kong," said Law, who is director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor -- a group that often sharply criticizes the government.

"It does signal to the Hong Kong leader that he should be more open to democratic development," Law said.

Demands for political reform have stepped up since July 1, when a rally by 500,000 people prompted a political upheaval that derailed an anti-subversion bill, which critics feared would harm Hong Kong's freedoms. Many were also expressing anger at what they perceive as bad governance by Tung.

Wen's remark was made to reporters on Bali, where he was meeting with other Asian leaders at a regional conference.

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