Fri, Mar 25, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Hong Kong lawmaker to legally challenge China

AP , HONG KONG

An opposition lawmaker said yesterday he plans to challenge in court the government's decision that Hong Kong's next leader should serve two years instead of five -- a step some see as caving in to pressure from Beijing.

The term length dispute erupted after Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa resigned earlier this month and the government announced that his successor, due to be chosen July 10, would only finish the two years remaining in Tung's term.

The announcement shocked some legal experts and pro-democracy lawmakers because Hong Kong's Basic Law, or mini constitution, says the territory's chief executive serves for five years.

On Thursday, independent lawmaker Albert Chan said he will seek a judicial review in court to challenge the government's decision as early as next week. Chan said he is working out details of the action with his lawyer and other pro-democracy politicians.

The government's position on term length surprised many, because last year officials issued a legal interpretation saying anyone chosen to be chief executive would serve a five-year term.

The recent flip-flop prompted wide speculation that the government changed its mind under pressure from Beijing. Many suspect China favors a two-year term, because it lets Beijing see how loyal the new leader will be before letting him rule another five years.

Critics have voiced fears that Hong Kong's cherished rule of law and high degree of autonomy -- guaranteed when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 -- will be compromised if Beijing steps in on the term issue.

Some Chinese officials have indicated that a leader's replacement should only serve out the remainder of that leader's term.

Hong Kong officials said they reinterpreted the law after consulting with mainland China legal experts. The government said this week it would seek to amend the election law to say that, if a chief executive fails to finish his term, the successor will only serve out the term's remainder.

The legislature will begin considering the proposed amendment on April 6 before voting on it.

Chan's lawsuit may prompt the government to seek a ruling from China's top legislative panel, which has the final say in Hong Kong's legal disputes.

"If the government tries to seek a legal interpretation from Beijing even before Hong Kong's court rules on the case, this is not acceptable," Chan said. "How can you convince the international community that Hong Kong's judicial independence and wide autonomy really exist?"

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