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Activists Wary of Hong Kong Move

September 06, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — Pro-democracy and human rights activists reacted warily Friday after the government withdrew a controversial anti-subversion bill from consideration, describing the move as a tactical retreat rather than an admission of defeat.

Hong Kong's administration, increasingly aware of its weak position, will return to fight another day when it's on more solid ground, opponents of the law warned.

The cautious reaction followed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's surprise announcement that he would withdraw the anti-subversion bill in the legislature and concentrate instead on reviving the territory's struggling economy.

Tung said the government had no timetable for reintroducing the bill. "Until there is sufficient consultation and support, we are not going ahead with the legislative process," he said.

The decision, which follows large-scale protests over the measure and the resignation of two ministers, is expected to reduce the political temperature in the territory -- at least for now.

Under the terms of the Basic Law, which has governed Hong Kong since the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty six years ago, the government is obligated to implement an anti-subversion law. However, the sweeping nature of the measure coupled with a seemingly manufactured sense of urgency to pass it led many to see the legislation as a threat to freedom of expression.

More than 500,000 residents took to the streets July 1 during one protest.

Friday's announcement surprised most opponents of the bill. Security Secretary Ambrose Lee told a group of pro-democracy activists Thursday that a revised draft, including 54 amendments, could be ready by the end of the month.

Although Tung's opponents agreed that Hong Kong's economy needs more attention, they rejected his explanation of the decision as disingenuous.

"It's a temporary tactical withdraw," concluded James To, a member of the Legislative Council and the Democratic Party's spokesman on security matters. "Why does he say that when the economy is better we can come back to this? Do Beijing and Hong Kong think if the economy is better, you can then tolerate a loss of freedom? This is horrible."

Others, however, saw the decision as a smart maneuver with little downside for the government other than the embarrassment of climbing down.

"I think the Beijing authorities came to see it [the bill] as a source of instability that would make Tung's rule difficult," said Law Yuk Kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. "They want to protect Tung, his backers and their authority. It's a wise political move."

Others agree, noting several potential benefits. Among them:

* Pulling a legislative bill that had drawn such widespread resistance helps counter a major criticism of Tung: that he is unresponsive to the public mood.

* More than two months after the July 1 protest, political momentum on the issue remained strongly with the measure's opponents. In such a climate it would have been extremely difficult for the government to avoid new and significant concessions, analysts believe.

* Removing the bill from legislative consideration also frees pro-Beijing parties from having to back the unpopular measure. With voters scheduled to fill 30 positions in the 60-member Legislative Council next year, recent surveys have charted a sharp drop in support for lawmakers who backed the legislation.

Meanwhile, a prominent opponent -- independent legislator Audrey Eu -- rose last month from relative obscurity to become the most admired politician in the territory.

"It's a win-win situation for them now," civil rights lawyer Gladys Li said of Hong Kong rulers. "But one doesn't know that at some opportune moment in the future they would whip it back" onto the agenda.

Next year's election is especially important because the new council will be the first eligible to conduct a constitutional review of the Basic Law -- an exercise that democracy advocates want to use to expand the territory's limited voting rights.

Tammy Wong in The Times' Hong Kong Bureau contributed to this report.

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