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China hits back over civil rights in Hong Kong

China is launching a counter offensive against the outcry over plans to dilute human rights legislation in Hong Kong. "There is no such thing as absolute rights and freedoms. There are limits," Zhao Bingxin, the spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) in Peking, said.

He was speaking to Hong Kong reporters at a press conference in the Chinese capital. The HKMAO rarely holds briefings of this kind, only doing so to deliver what China views as important messages. This one was backed up by a lengthy commentary from China's official news agency arguing that the amendments were only necessary because Britain had changed laws without China's permission.

At stake are proposals to amend Hong Kong's Bill of Rights and restore old colonial legislation which limited rights of assembly and association. China's Preparatory Committee, the body preparing for the handover on 1 July, begins a meeting today to decide whether the legal changes are necessary.

Tung Chee-hwa, who will head the first post-colonial government, said yesterday that although there was no question of the reformed civil liberties legislation being allowed to remain on the statute books, it was not necessary to revert to the old colonial laws. He said new ways could be found of introducing laws which would preserve the stability of Hong Kong society.

China has been taken aback by the strength of the response to its proposals. An opinion poll published yesterday suggested that Mr Tung's support for the changes was already taking a toll on his popularity rating.

The Governor, Chris Patten, claimed yesterday that "virtually the entire community in Hong Kong" had rejected China's "repugnant" proposals. He said that they threatened Hong Kong's freedoms and would "unsettle the community". However, the Governor's civil servants, who will soon be working under the new regime, have shown signs of acute embarrassment in defending the current government's position.

Anson Chan, the Chief Secretary and deputy to Mr Patten, frankly told an American audience that she found herself "in a somewhat delicate position". She freely admitted that she was part of the administration which created the civil liberties reforms because "we believe them to be right and we believe them to be what the community wanted". However, she said she would be part of the incoming administration which will have "to deal with this problem".

At a legislator's hearing on the legal changes last Friday some of the civil servants were even unwilling to repeat policy positions laid out in their written briefs, retreating into embarrassed silence and buck passing. Very few government officials are prepared to risk their careers by defending their current masters on this delicate matter.