HONG KONG SHELVES UNPOPULAR SUBVERSION BILL


2003-09-05
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Chief Executive cites 'widespread concern'

Hong Kong's embattled Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has announced that his government will withdraw controversial national security legislation that triggered mass protests on July 1, RFA's Cantonese service reports.

"In order to give people enough time to understand the law, we have decided to postpone it," Tung told a news conference, in a sharp turnaround.

Popular anger over the Article 23 legislation culminated in mass demonstrations on the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China, on July 1.

Protesters--who marched in their hundreds of thousands--feared the bill would erode civil liberties and media freedom, long a hallmark of political life in Hong Kong.

Many marchers called for Tung's resignation, and two members of his cabinet resigned following the demonstrations.

The protests shocked Beijing, which issued a statement shortly after Tung's news conference saying it backed the decision to withdraw the bill for the time being.

Tung said there was no timetable for re-introducing the bill, which would happen only after further extensive public consultation.

"We believe the community needs to focus on the economy which has had a hard time with SARS. We need to get the economy going again and the whole community needs to be focused on reviving the economy," he said.

Reaction to the decision in Hong Kong was mixed, with some analysts saying Tung agreed to this embarrassing turnaround only because he had lost key votes in the territory's Legislative Council.

LegCo is dominated by pro-China representatives, only one-third of whom are directly elected by popular ballot.

However, Democratic Party Chairman Yeung Sum hailed the decision as a victory for Hong Kong people. "The Democratic Party welcomes our government's retreat over this legislation," Yeung told RFA's Cantonese service.

"The Democratic Party believes we should have universal suffrage to elect the Chief Executive and the Legislation Council first, then begin the work of processing legislation," he said.

Tung is currently chosen by an election committee hand-picked by Beijing.

Hong Kong's Catholic Bishop, Joseph Chen, said Tung's move amounted to a tactical retreat aimed at boosting support for pro-Beijing parties in the next Legislative Council elections.

Lawyers' groups welcomed the decision, saying there was no hurry and further consultation was needed.

China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Hong Kong needed to focus on solving its economic problems, before returning to the Article 23 issue at a later date.

Beijing's view was echoed by pro-China legislator Tsang Yok-sing. "It is not practical to think that we can finish the process of passing the bill next July. There are too many problems to deal with."

Under Article 23 of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the former British colony must enact legislation aimed at safeguarding national security. Communist Party officials in Beijing have long feared that its political opponents might use Hong Kong as a base from which to subvert its rule.

However, critics say Tung's government has been over-zealous in its drafting of the legislation, which gives broad powers to police and the judiciary on matters of national security, while leaving key legal concepts poorly defined.

The government's attempts to push the legislation through without going through the customary White Paper stage further fanned popular outrage.

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