Chinese whispers get a stormy broadcast in Hong Kong

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

Chief Justice Sir Ti Liang Yang thought his secret was safe when he told a senior Chinese official that the Bill of Rights, the centrepiece of the government's civil rights programme, undermined the legal system. However, the official decided to go public on what he heard.

Like many in the colonial administration, Sir Ti Liang has been doing his best to get to know the new masters. He has been so successful that many believe he has emerged as a leading contender for Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government when China resumes sovereignty in 1997.

However, the studiously non-controversial Chief Justice appears to have underestimated just how difficult it is to ride two horses. The Chinese horse is quite prepared to trot along until it hits an obstacle; then it does what needs to done to get round it even if this means throwing the rider.

Sir Ti Liang was thrown by Zhang Junsheng, the ever-smiling chief spokesman and vice-director of the New China News Agency in Hong Kong, which serves as Peking's de facto embassy. Mr Zhang is also spearheading the drive to get the Bill of Rights watered down.

Local opposition to watering down the Bill is strong and when the Chief Justice gave the smallest hint of criticism of China's position, saying that maybe the new government could make a decision on the Bill, rather than rushing into hasty action, Mr Zhang showed no compunction in disclosing a conversation with Sir Ti Liang.

The Chief Justice said if he had known his views "would be unveiled in public, I would have chosen my words more carefully and done some research before making them".

He did not, however, deny making the remarks and confined any reservations he had about criticising the policies of his current bosses by saying: "in future, I'll not talk too much, even to my friends".

Yesterday the Chief Justice went to a meeting with Mrs Anson Chan, the Chief Secretary, which she described as a routine discussion. He then promised to put down on paper his views about the Bill of Rights.

The Governor, Chris Patten, has decided to say nothing. The feeling in government circles is that Sir Ti Liang has dug himself in a hole and that he will have to extricate himself.

Meanwhile, another High Court judge, Benjamin Liu, told the Peking-controlled Wen Wei Po newspaper that China was only being practical in wanting to curb the Bill of Rights. Other civil servants may well join Sir Ti Liang in telling Chinese officials about misgivings over aspects of policy which China does not like. However, they do not expect these views to reach the public domain.