Legal experts and democrats in Hong Kong have slammed a ruling by the Chinese government asserting its control over political reforms there, as a group of Chinese officials arrived in the territory Wednesday. Critics say the ruling undermines the "one country, two systems" policy set up when the former British colony was handed back to Beijing in 1997, RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services report.

The Standing Committee of China's parliament passed a review of Hong Kong's mini-constitution giving Beijing full control over the territory's political reforms, including the right to decide whether full and direct elections take place at all, as provided for in the Basic Law. A delegation from the committee, including Chairman Qiao Xiaoyang, arrived in Hong Kong Wednesday to hold meetings with legislators and officials in an attempt to explain its ruling.

"If the central government insists on ignoring the Basic Law and on retaining power in Beijing, the foundation of one country two systems will be shaken," Edward Cheng, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association told RFA.

Cheng said the key point of Tuesday's ruling was to remove the right to initiate political reforms, provided for in the Basic Law from as early as 2007, from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government, and place it squarely in the hands of central government in Beijing.

"The right to amend the law belongs to the National People's Congress (NPC),'' Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary-general of the NPC's Standing Committee, told a news conference in Beijing. "A locality has no fixed power. All powers of the locality derive from the authorization of the central authorities," he added.

Officials said the committee's interpretation was necessary given the wide range of opinions about the Basic Law and its use. "We have not only not impeded the democratic process in Hong Kong, we have promoted democracy in Hong Kong's political system through our interpretation,'' Qiao said.

Under the Basic Law, the procedure for political change was envisaged as being initiated by the Legislative Council, then passed to Beijing for final approval or veto by the Chief Executive, a change which Hong Kong democrats say short-circuits that procedure, effectively locating the power to initiate reform with Beijing.

"We can see through the central government's goal. They are using a tool that looks like a legal procedure to achieve their political purpose, which is take back the initiation rights from Hong Kong," Audrey Eu, a pro-democracy member of the Legislative Council, told RFA.

"Changes [to the Basic Law] were interpreted as requiring an additional procedure, so the procedure in which the Hong Kong Chief Executive has to seek prior approval for proposing changes. Therefore, this is not a procedure for making changes, but a prerequisite they added," Eu said.

Political analysts in Hong Kong agreed. "This new interpretation puts the determining power in the hands of the Standing Committee," politics professor Lin Feng said. "This surely will lead to debates."

Current affairs analyst Zhou Bin also pointed to the all-important process of initiating political reforms, which the Standing Committee ruling said might, or might not, take place. "Political reform will never get started if the Hong Kong government does not propose it," Zhou said.

Many expressed concern that Hong Kong, promised "a high degree of autonomy" in the Basic Law, was presented with a fait accompli.

Human rights lawyer Chong Yiu-kwong said the entire operation had been carried out "under the cloak of darkness". What's more, he said, interpretation had effectively revised and amended the Basic Law, and that no-one in Hong Kong heard a thing about it until lunchtime on Tuesday.

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.

Hong Kong Legislative Council member Emily Lau spoke with an RFA correspondent while visiting Germany and other EU countries urging them to express concern over human rights in Hong Kong.

"We were shocked that elections in 2007 and 2008 were included in the Standing Committee's interpretation of the Basic Law. No one had told us about it before, and we didn't know about the content of the interpretation,� Hong Kong Legislative Council member Emily Lao told an RFA correspondent while on a trip to EU countries. �Some people now worry that after the central government's interpretation, Hong Kong cannot discuss the issue anymore, and that there will be no democratic elections in 2007 and 2008."

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 and prevent pro-Beijing parties from losing ground in September's elections.

Under the Basic Law, the Chief Executive can be elected by universal suffrage as early as 2007, while the Legislative Council can be fully and directly elected by as early as 2008. However, no further framework was set, enabling policymakers to postpone the changes for an indefinite period. Tuesday's Standing Committee decision said that its rulings had the same value as articles in the Basic Law. #####


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