Hong Kong subversion law infuriates China

Measure strictly worded to prevent its use as a catch-all to muzzle opposition
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The Independent Online
Britain has plunged into a new row with China by unilaterally deciding to introduce legislation in Hong Kong which will outlaw subversion and secession. The Chinese government's spokesman in the colony called the action a violation of undertakings and said Britain would be held responsible for its actions.

China wants its incoming administration to draft laws on these sensitive matters. However, yesterday the Governor's Executive Council, or cabinet, decided time had run out for further attempts at bringing the Chinese on side and published a draft bill to be gazetted at the end of the week.

For more than a year, Chinese negotiators have resisted British attempts to reach a deal on the matter. China refused even to consider the possibility of allowing the current Hong Kong administration to have a say in drafting laws on the issue.

It is almost certain China will repeal the law when it assumes sovereignty over Hong Kong next year. However, this may not be necessary, because it is possible Chinese officials will lean on the legislators and prevent enactment of the laws. Peter Lai, Hong Kong's Secretary for Security, yesterday said the government had been forced to act "because we have to bear in mind public interest and concern". He said the Governor, Chris Patten, had promised to take action in 1994 and steps had to be taken "to fulfil our public commitments".

China insisted on inserting "counter-subversion" and secession clauses in the colony's draft Basic Law, or mini-constitution, after Hong Kong people staged big demonstrations against the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. At the moment, Hong Kong does not have laws dealing with subversion, although there is legislation relating to treason, incitement to disaffection and sedition. These have already been amended to delete references to acts against the British government.

Concern over use of subversion laws, which are all-embracing in China, has been rekindled after the 11-year sentence on the Chinese pro-democracy activist Wang Dan. There is also disquiet over statements by Quian Quichen, China's deputy prime minister, about unwillingness to tolerate criticism of the Peking government in Hong Kong.

In drafting the new laws, the Hong Kong government has given a definition of subversion which will make the law difficult to interpret as a catch- all offence. Paul Harris, of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor pressure group, said it would be better to have no counter-subversion law, but described the draft as "the best of a bad job".

It is unclear why Britain has moved in the dying days of colonial government. For 150 years the colony has lived with fairly draconian laws designed to prevent sedition and treason. Only now has it been decided to introduce a more liberal regime. In so doing, there is the possibility of provoking China into widespread reprisals. Mr Lai said the door was open for negotiation and he hoped China "will listen to the comments and opinions" of people in Hong Kong "before starting to take decisions on what they would or would not do".

British officials hope China will not make a big issue of this matter, but precedent suggests the response will not be mild.

Cynics interpret the British action as London's attempt to create the appearance of having done its best to protect Hong Kong, in the full knowledge that none of its actions are likely to survive more than weeks following China's resumption of sovereignty on 1 July.

As soon as the handover takes place, China will scrap the legislature and install a provisional body chosen by 400 people who have shown willingness to support Peking. One of the first acts the new legislature will be asked to undertake is to pass legislation on subversion, treason and secession.