Chinese officials were taken aback by the storm of protest which erupted this week because much of it came from supporters who rarely publicise their misgivings about Chinese policy.
Moreover, the government in Peking and its advisers believed they had already laid the ground for plans to neuter the Bill of Rights and reintroduce some antiquated colonial legislation which imposes curbs on the freedom of assembly and the right to form associations.
For the first time in many years nearly all newspapers in the colony, most of which have become increasingly supine in their coverage of Chinese policy, have come out strongly against the planned changes. The Chinese language Express News, for example, warned China against reimposing "fascist laws".
In another commentary, the pro-Peking Sing Pao newspaper said that the law reform proposals, which come from a Chinese advisory committee with Hong Kong members, posed a test of leadership for Tung Chee-hwa, who will head the first post-colonial government. It stated that the changes were against the will of the people of Hong Kong and that Mr Tung should therefore pay attention to these views - rather than those of advisers who wanted to turn back the clock on human rights legislation.
The law reform proposals are part of a wider exercise designed to identify and abolish laws with a colonial tinge and remove legislation seen as contradicting the Basic Law, the mini-constitution for the new Hong Kong.
The exercise has been so thoroughgoing that China is even proposing to scrap legislation which brought Hong Kong onto the Gregorian calendar system, as opposed to the Julian system which ceased to be used in Britain in 1752.
The Gregorian calendar was adopted because it was more accurate than the Julian calendar. This piece of legal amendment seems to be more a product of over zealous action to purge laws regarded as colonial, rather than a politically motivated move.
Although the proposed changes in the law have not been endorsed by any decision- making body they have already been endorsed by senior Chinese officials. Chen Zuo'er, one of China's negotiators with Britain over Hong Kong transitional matters, said that the changes would put "history back on the right track".
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said yesterday that as the Hong Kong government had made unilateral changes to laws which would be in force following the handover of power, it was necessary to bring these laws back into line. Ultimately the new laws will have to be presented to a new legislature which has been virtually hand-picked by China. Nevertheless some of its members have expressed unease about the changes.
Liu Yiu-chu, a lawyer, and a member of China's National People's Congress, questioned why it was proposed to bring back oppressive public order laws which had been abolished by the Legislative Council. She said that these proposals would damage Hong Kong's image overseas.
The Governor Chris Patten, described the changes as striking "at the heart of Hong Kong liberties". Britain will be making a formal protest .
Although the recommendations cover the scrapping of 16 laws and the amendment of 9 others, some recent changes to Hong Kong law have remained unscathed. Pro-Peking supporters in the rural areas are furious that the new law giving women land-inheritance rights has not been abolished.
The Legislative Council, which, along with all organs of elected government, will be scrapped under the proposals, will meet on Friday to consider its response.Reuse content