Cook puts Peking rule on probation

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The Independent Online
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has mobilised Britain's European allies to press China to hold "fair and open" elections in Hong Kong. However, in Hong Kong, Britain is being attacked for backsliding on its opposition to the creation of an unelected legislature.

On the eve of his departure for the ceremonies to mark the end of British rule on Monday, Mr Cook spoke of Britain's "moral responsibility" to ensure China fulfilled its pledges on the freedom of Hong Kong's people. He warned that if China failed to live up to these pledges Britain would exert pressure and encourage its allies to follow suit. He was backed by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Luxembourg.

The incoming regime says elections will be held within a year. The elected legislature is to be disbanded and replaced by a provisional body appointed by China, and Peking's supporters have been appointed to sit with elected members in local government.

Mr Cook's reference to "fair and open" elections refers to doubts over the new election system, which has yet to be announced. There are also questions cutting the size of the electorate.

In one of its last defiant gestures, the outgoing Legislative Council yesterday voted to change Hong Kong's Basic Law, the new mini-constitution, to allow the rapid introduction of universal suffrage and direct election of the head of government.

Albert Ho, a member of the Democratic Party, said: "The Basic Law must be amended to make democratic reform possible." He said if this were not achieved China would not be able to honour its promise of "one country, two systems", under which China would pursue a socialist system while Hong Kong followed a more laissez-faire path. The new administration has made it clear that it has little time for the decisions of the outgoing legislature. It is unlikely to pay much attention to yesterday's vote.

Britain has been urged by the Democratic Party to intervene in Hong Kong affairs if China breaks pledges to give the territory a high degree of autonomy. This point will be forcefully made to Mr Cook by Martin Lee, the party's leader, when he meets the Foreign Secretary at the weekend.

The Democrats were disappointed when Britain announced it was sending senior officials to attend a ceremony for the new administration, which is being boycotted by Mr Cook and Tony Blair in protest against the installation of the provisional legislature. Emily Lau, a pro-democracy legislator, said the decision made a mockery of a pledge to boycott the proceedings.

Francis Cornish, the Consul General designate in Hong Kong, defended the decision, saying other officials would also be installed, including judges. Mr Cornish said Britain wanted to "work very closely" with them.

Letters, page 17

Comment, page 19

Police threat

A group of senior Hong Kong policemen say they have been threatened with disciplinary action if they fail to report for duty following the handover of power to China next week. They say that they pledged allegiance to the Crown, not to the Chinese government and should be allowed to retire on full pensions. The Police Commissioner said yesterday that they could resign at any time, with the normal notice period being waived.