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Beijing Flexes Hong Kong Muscle

Government says it will settle the question of how elections will be structured. Democracy advocates say the intervention is unfair.

March 27, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — Beijing on Friday appeared to declare an abrupt end to the debate about extending democracy in Hong Kong, stating that it -- and not people in the territory -- would decide the controversial issue of how to select the region's next chief executive.

The announcement, which came in a New China News Agency commentary written by Beijing legal expert Wang Zhenmin, gave no details on how Beijing would rule, but the timing and context of the article strongly indicated that an official ruling would go against democracy advocates.

Wang's commentary stated that a ruling on the issue would be made by a committee of the National People's Congress, Beijing's rubber-stamp parliament, most likely within the next 10 days.

Wang, who helped draft the Basic Law that serves as Hong Kong's de facto constitution, described Beijing's intervention as being "extremely necessary."

The unexpected announcement stunned democracy advocates in the region, who described it as a serious blow to self-rule and an ominous development in their effort to expand the right of universal suffrage.

"It's totally unfair," said Law Yuk Kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, a group that advocates expanded democracy. "All signs are that they want to put a stop to this."

Democracy advocates hoped for direct election of the next chief executive in 2007 and all 60 members of the Legislative Council by 2008.

Hong Kong's current chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was chosen by a group of the territory's elites in consultation with Beijing. Half the council seats will be filled by popular vote in September and half by a variety of special interests.

Under the terms of its 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty after a century and a half of British colonial rule, Hong Kong was granted a large degree of autonomy under a formula known as "one country, two systems." The arrangement gives Hong Kong many democratic rights, including freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

In his commentary, Wang pointedly noted that some of those pushing for expanding democracy in Hong Kong had expressed views "not complementary with the principle of 'one country, two systems.' "

Beijing's decision marks the second time since 1997 that it has intervened directly in Hong Kong's affairs, a right it enjoys under the Basic Law. Four years ago, it overruled Hong Kong's highest court to halt immigration into the territory after the court had concluded that thousands of mainlanders claiming residency here had a legal right to stay.

Tung welcomed Friday's decision as "a good thing" because it would end a bitter debate that has been underway since last summer in the territory about the method of choosing his successor, but legal specialists in the region worried that it would further undermine its already shaky autonomy.

"I don't see there's any need for the committee to interpret the Basic Law at this stage," said Hong Kong Bar Assn. chairman Chan King-sang.

Beijing's move followed a barrage of aggressive rhetoric it aimed at democracy advocates that was peppered with denunciations in a style reminiscent of the infamous Cultural Revolution. It also comes at a time when democracy advocates have been put on the defensive by events around them. Those events include Taiwan's messy election, which has been denounced as a fraud by Beijing and raised second thoughts among many in Hong Kong about the pace of expanding suffrage.

Recent opinion polls in the territory indicate a shift in public sentiment, with fewer advocating direct popular election of the chief executive in 2007 than did just a few months ago.

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