New masters play down HK changes

The incoming Hong Kong government has backed down on some of its more draconian proposals for diluting civil liberties laws after it assumes power on 1 July.

Announcing the partial climbdown yesterday, Michael Suen, the new government's policy co-ordination secretary, said that the changes were "major" and that the public's views had been "taken on board". He stated that "a proper balance between civil liberty and public order" had been struck.

More than 5,000 written submissions were received following publication of a consultative paper setting out the new administration's plans, many of which involve the reintroduction of old colonial laws.

Mr Suen maintained that it was difficult to say whether the submissions were for or against the proposals but finally conceded that opinion was evenly divided. He insisted that the new administration was not necessarily looking at the number of submissions but was "looking behind the rationale of the submissions. All public opinion polls have registered strong opposition to the idea of changing the current laws and most legal profession representatives are also strongly opposed to the changes.

Yesterday Yeung Sum, a leader of the Democratic Party, described the changes as being purely technical and said: "We are disappointed by the process of consultation and the results." The governor, Chris Patten, said: "The question remains, why was any of this necessary?"

Among the more controversial proposals to have been amended, was a plan to virtually prohibit the calling of demonstrations at short notice.

Now organisers will be required to give seven days' notice but can tell the police of their intention to demonstrate closer to the time. The police will not, as originally planned, have to issue a "Notice of No Objection".

The apparently wide ranging definition of a political organisation, which will have to register and comply with new regulations, has been narrowed to bodies whose primary aim is putting up candidates for public office. In addition, the previous idea of preventing all foreigners from contributing to these organisations has been replaced by a prohibition on contributions from overseas.

However, the government-in-waiting has maintained its controversial insistence on prohibiting the registration of political organisations which threaten national security and banning demonstrations which are likely to produce the same results.

It has declined to spell out what might be considered a threat to national security, aside from saying that it involves challenges to "the safeguarding of the territorial integrity and the independence of China". Instead of detailing what this means, the government will publish administrative guidelines which will not have the force of law.

Meanwhile, in Peking, a government advisory committee has finalised plans for a new election system, designed to reduce the presence of pro-democracy members in the territory's legislature.

The proposals, from China's Preparatory Committee, would change the voting system in geographical constituencies to introduce multi-seat constituencies where electors would only be able to vote for one candidate.

In past elections, the Democratic Party and its allies swept the polls. China would not like to see this repeated when it finally holds elections for the legislature in about a year's time.

This convoluted plan, which is heavily weighted against popular parties, appears to offer the best hope of pushing more pro-Peking members into office.

Britain attacked the plans, saying they were totally unjustified. "The proposals contained unnecessary restrictions and rightly aroused widespread concern both in Hong Kong and internationally." the Foreign Office said in a statement. "It was right to consult the people of Hong Kong. We are pleased that the new proposals take some account of some of the anxieties expressed."

The statement continued: "But we remain concerned at the elements of the revised proposals which still do not fully meet the concerns of the community and which represent a step backwards from present arrangements."

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