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Hong Kong May Exempt China Bodies

March 30, 1998|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — After a Chinese institution's public failure to comply with Hong Kong's privacy law, the post-colonial government is trying to quickly enact a bill that could put Chinese state institutions in the territory above the law.

The Adaptation of Laws Bill would restore a British colonial practice of exempting the government from local laws and would expand the definition of the government to include mainland representatives in Hong Kong as well as local officials.

Passing the bill would be one of the final acts of Hong Kong's appointed legislature before it is dissolved April 8 and replaced with an elected legislature.

Critics say that the bill goes expressly against the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, which states that Chinese branches in Hong Kong must obey local laws.

"When I was a member of the Basic Law drafting committee, we were assured by mainland drafters that all branch offices were subject to the Basic Law and ordinary laws of Hong Kong," Martin Lee, a lawyer and the leader of the Democratic Party, said today. "But this new bill is a major threat to the rule of law."

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Lee said he has requested that the controversial bill be considered in Washington's annual review of Hong Kong's autonomy, mandated by the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act. The assessment is presented to the U.S. Congress every April, and the law says that Hong Kong can enjoy special relations with the U.S. only as long as it retains independence.

A Hong Kong government spokesman called the measure "only a straightforward and technical bill" to update old definitions. Justice Secretary Elsie Leung added that it is "essential for the smooth operation of the Hong Kong SAR [Special Administrative Region]" and therefore needed as soon as possible.

The government introduced the bill last month, after the New China News Agency failed to comply with the territory's privacy law and was not held accountable for the breach. Leung had sparked concern last month when she declined to prosecute the news agency after it failed to provide former legislator Emily Lau with files Lau believed the agency kept on her.

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