China dashes hopes of Hong Kong democracy

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The Independent Online

China formally closed the door on Hong Kong self-governance yesterday when it issued an interpretation of the territory's constitution that dashed hopes the Communist Party might tolerate political reform.

China formally closed the door on Hong Kong self-governance yesterday when it issued an interpretation of the territory's constitution that dashed hopes the Communist Party might tolerate political reform.

The decision by the standing committee of the National People's Congress at a meeting in Beijing affected two clauses in the former British colony's Basic Law or constitution determining how its leaders and lawmakers will be chosen, in effect ruling out any real say for Hong Kong people.

Beijing now not only has the right to veto any proposed electoral change, but also the authority to decide whetherchanges are needed, which means it can put off political reform for as long as it likes.

In the short term the move is designed to stop a drive to have Hong Kong's leader or chief executive chosen by direct elections in 2007, a campaign that was boosted last year when half a million people turned out in peaceful demonstrations against Tung Chee-hwa, the current and unpopular appointee. It also signals that the new central leadership headed by President Hu Jintao remains as fearful of tolerating the slightest challenge to its authority as that of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

In recent weeks Beijing has harassed even moderate reformist voices in the party, such as the economist Cai Siyuan who has been forced to seek refuge in the United States. It has also meted out heavy prison sentences to the editors of the Southern Metropolis Daily based in Guangzhou, which exposed the cover-up of Sars.

Beijing seems alarmed by President Chen Shui-bian's election victory in Taiwan and has become convinced that its supporters could never win free elections in Hong Kong where the Democratic Party and other opposition forces seem likely to win a majority of seats in the Legislative Council elections in September.

Under the Sino-British treaty that returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule, Hong Kong was supposed to be moving gradually towards universal suffrage and free direct elections.

Many hoped Hong Kong could serve China as a laboratory for experiments in democracy just as it had been used to inspire many of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. But others warned that Beijing had made similar promises of autonomy to the non-Han Chinese inhabitants of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. In fact they are more tightly controlled than other provinces.

Beijing seems frightened that if it allows the chief executive to be directly elected it will lose all control, since the electorate might vote for a critic of the Communist Party.

Beijing now insists that only "patriots" can rule Hong Kong, a term that excludes anyone opposed to the party. Albert Ho, a vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, said: "This move [the re-interpretation] will make us even more determined to fight for democracy."

But Tsang Hin-chi, the only Hong Kong representative on the standing committee, said the ruling left open the possibility of a direct election in 2007. "If the system needs to be changed, it can be changed. But it can also stay the same," he said. "I hope people don't oppose it blindly."

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