China sounds death-knell of democracy in Hong Kong

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The Independent Online
CHINA yesterday formally confirmed that it will dismantle all Hong Kong's electoral bodies when sovereignty reverts to the mainland in 1997. But Peking gave no details about how it proposes to handle the transition without creating a legislative vacuum.

The 'legal regulation' passed by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) puts a rubber stamp on China's long-stated intention to overturn the democratic reforms initiated by the colony's governor, Chris Patten. 'The last Legislative Council, city government, district government and district board will be terminated on June 30, 1997,' the order declared.

In less than three weeks Hong Kong will hold elections for the district boards, the lowest tier of local government, under the Patten electoral system reviled by Peking.

Yesterday's unanimous NPC vote - which was no surprise - formally sounds the death-knell for the 'through train' strategy that for years was central to Sino- British negotiations over the transfer of sovereignty. Under this plan, people elected in 1995 to the Legislative Council would retain their seats until new elections in 1999. The benefits of such continuity will now be lost, as China intends to hold elections under its own rules soon after Hong Kong is reunited with the mainland.

Yesterday, the official Xinhua news agency said the new legislature and government would be set up in line with a 1990 order by China's parliament. It gave no details of what this would mean, or how Peking would avoid a legislative hiatus between scrapping Mr Patten's system and introducing its own. A 'preparatory working committee' has been set up.

It was nearly 18 months ago that Chinese officials, furious at Mr Patten's plans to make the colony's elections more democratic, first voiced plans to abolish any system left behind by Britain. Peking and London subsequently held 17 rounds of fruitless negotiations in an effort to reach a compromise over electoral arrangements in the colony.

A British Embassy spokesperson in Peking said the NPC's order was 'not unexpected'. In Hong Kong, a government spokesperson last night said: 'If in 1997 those arrangements are dismantled, those who take responsibility for that will have to explain themselves to six million people here in Hong Kong.'

Back in Peking, the authorities detained one of the country's leading dissidents, a day after the US Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, on a high-profile trade mission, insisted 'commercial engagement' with China was the best way for the US to promote human rights.

Wang Dan, one of the student leaders in the 1989 pro-democracy protests, was taken from his home for questioning and held for seven hours. Earlier, Mr Wang, 24, had been forcibly prevented by police from leaving his apartment building as he set off for the Peking police station to lodge a formal complaint about months of harassment by public security officials.

The detention comes at an embarrassing time for the Clinton administration, which is facing criticism for relegating human rights concerns in favour of promoting US business interests in China. On Tuesday, China agreed to resume bilateral human rights talks with the US, a decision Mr Brown triumphantly said vindicated the new policy of 'commercial diplomacy'. Non-US diplomats were less impressed, saying China's decision was an 'empty prize' for Mr Brown and that the bilateral dialogue had never previously yielded significant results.

Leading article, page 15

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