Hong Kong lawyers' alarm as Peking overrules courts

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THE CHINESE parliament yesterday announced that it was overruling Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal. This announcement has been greeted with alarm in the ex-colony, where the legal community fears the entire system of the rule of law has been put into question.

When Britain and China about having a Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong to replace the House of Lords, it was believed that the court could not be overruled by a political body in Peking. But yesterday the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress (NPC) overruled the court and criticised it for not seeking its advice. It then issued a judgment which interpreted Hong Kong's mini-constitution, called the Basic Law.

Margaret Ng, a barrister who represents lawyers in the Hong Kong legislature, said yesterday that the interpretation of the law by China's parliament raised the danger of political intervention in legal matters. "It raises so many questions. This will be the source of a great deal of litigation to come," she said.

Martin Lee, a leading lawyer and leader of the Democratic Party, said that the government was undermining the rule of law. He said the authorities were effectively telling the world that if they failed to secure the court rulings they wanted they would always win in the end by appealing to Peking.

The Hong Kong Bar Association said it wanted no more involvement by Peking in Hong Kong's English-style courts, where barristers and judges still wear wigs, as they did during colonial days.

The Peking-appointed administration in Hong Kong has lost a series of court battles over the right of abode in the territory for those children born in China to a parent living in Hong Kong. The courts have ruled that the Basic Law gives these children the right to settle in the territory.

But the administration says that if the court's rulings were to be implemented, Hong Kong would be swamped by 1.6 million children from the Chinese mainland, who could all claim Hong Kong parentage. The reinterpretation of the law will probably mean that no more than about 200,000 children would qualify. There are large numbers of Chinese children with a Hong Kong parent because many men from the former colony either work in China or do business there, and keep mistresses on the mainland.

An emergency meeting of the legislature is being called for tomorrow to enact new legislation based on the Chinese parliament's ruling. Lawyers are planning a silent demonstration to mourn what they call the end of the rule of law.

"I like Hong Kong. This is my homeland and I don't want it harmed from mainland China," said Lo Suk-ling, a student. "In 1997, they said it wouldn't be changed for 50 years, but now it has been changed. I don't think immigrants are the main issue. The mainland wants to show its power."