HONG KONG — Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said today that he would tone down an anti-subversion bill that provoked a protest this week by 500,000 people who feared a crackdown on civil liberties.
Tung said he would scrap a provision that allows some groups to be banned, add protections for journalists who publish classified information and delete a provision that would let police conduct searches without warrants.
Tung acknowledged that the massive outpouring of public protest had forced the retreat from parts of the national security law and said, "My colleagues and myself have to do better." He made the announcement during a news conference, surrounded by members of his Cabinet.
Tung said he wants Hong Kong's legislature to pass the revised law on schedule next week. The law is required under the territory's mini-constitution that took effect at Hong Kong's hand-over from Britain to China on July 1, 1997.
Tung predicted that the bill can pass because his changes mean "the controversy is no longer there."
The bill outlaws subversion, treason, sedition and other crimes against the state, imposing life prison sentences for some offenses.
Tung found himself embroiled in the biggest political crisis since Hong Kong was handed back to China, and the pressure became insurmountable after a key legislative ally went to Beijing and returned Friday saying he supported a delay in passing the law.
Lawmaker James Tien from the pro-business Liberal Party said eight legislators of his party would support delaying the bill until the end of the year.
Tien had earlier taken the unusual step of flying to Beijing to discuss the crisis with mainland officials, including Liao Hui, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China's State Council.
Tien quoted Liao and another Chinese central government official as saying that while Beijing insists the national security law must be enacted, the timing and details of the legislation were up to Hong Kong.
Since the march, Tung's critics have been escalating their demands that he give an adequate response to the will of the people. The march was the biggest here since 1 million people demonstrated against China's deadly crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in June 1989.
Lawmakers were scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday, and 23 of the 60 legislators publicly opposed it -- at least before Tung announced the changes.
Opposition politicians urged Tung on Friday to withdraw the bill and charged that he would be "sacrificing Hong Kong's future" if he refused. Some called for his resignation.