CHINA SAYS IT CAN CHANGE HONG KONG LAW AT ANY TIME


2004.04.09
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A top Chinese parliamentarian has said Beijing can intervene to amend and interpret Hong Kong's constitution, the Basic Law, and therefore cannot rule out doing so again in the future, RFA reports. "We have this power...that's why we can't promise never to interpret the Basic Law in the future," Qiao Xiaoyang, a senior member of China's parliament, told a public forum in Hong Kong Thursday.

"If the National People's Congress (NPC) interprets the law again, we hope you'll all take it easy," said Qiao, who arrived Wednesday on a mission to explain a sudden ruling from the NPC, which has placed power to dictate Hong Kong's political reform process firmly in the hands of Beijing. The Standing Committee of the NPC passed a review of the Basic Law Tuesday following mounting calls in the territory over the timing of a move to full and direct elections.

The move, which highlights Beijing's unfamiliarity with decision-making processes in a pluralistic society, gave the NPC full control over the territory's political reforms, including the right to decide whether further democratization takes place at all.

Legal experts and democrats in Hong Kong slammed the ruling, saying it undermined the "one country, two systems" policy set up when the former British colony was handed back to Beijing in 1997. Pro-democracy groups, who have already protested in small numbers, vowed to stage large demonstrations at the weekend.

"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's Cantonese service. He 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.

"The right to amend the law belongs to the National People's Congress," Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary-general of the NPC Standing Committee, told a news conference Tuesday 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 that Hong Kong democrats say short-circuits that procedure.

"We can see through the central government's goal. They are using a tool that looks like a legal procedure to acheive 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's Cantonese service.

"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.

British and U.S. officials have expressed concern at the interpretation, while political analysts in Hong Kong also worried the territory's autonomy. "This new interpretation puts the determining power in the hands of the Standing Committee," politics professor Lin Feng told RFA's Mandarin service. "This surely will lead to debates." Current affairs analyst Zhou Bin said: "Political reform will never get started if the Hong Kong government does not propose it."

Human rights lawyer Chong Yiu-kwong said the entire operation had been carried out "under the cloak of darkness." What's more, he said, the 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.

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 is laid down, 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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