Peking proposes 'draconian' laws in HK

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

China is proposing to reintroduce to Hong Kong some of the more draconian colonial laws which were abandoned after the introduction of a Bill of Rights in the colony four years ago. The move has united political opinion in the colony to an extent not seen since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Yesterday the legal-affairs sub-group of China's Preliminary Working Committee (PWC), the advisory body to the Chinese government on Hong Kong's change of sovereignty in 1997, concluded that it would stick by its controversial proposals to water down the Bill of Rights and bring back laws which limit civil rights.

The advisers originally proposed the changes to the laws last month, provoking an immediate outcry. Peking then took the unusual step of dispatching three legal experts to Hong Kong to explain the policy. At one meeting, the three harangued an audience of government advisers from district councils for two-and-a-half hours. No one in the audience was allowed to speak.

Sources say that the real reason for China's refusal to listen to the opposition is that the proposals from the PWC were endorsed by the "Hong Kong Committee", a body whose existence is not publicly acknowledged, although it is headed by China's President Jiang Zemin and includes the Prime Minister, Li Peng, and Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, as well as the two senior officials directly responsible for Hong Kong affairs. It is difficult to reverse decisions taken at this level. An attempt by Britain to discuss the matter last week in Peking was dismissed as "outside interference".

British officials believe that changes to the Bill of Rights would contravene the 1984 Sino-British agreement. Opposition to the proposals is mounting and is likely to be well aired next week, when Hong Kong's Legislative Council holds an emergency debate.

Under the proposals the Bill of Rights will lose its predominance over other legislation. Old colonial laws will be restored, such as those giving powers to censor television and banning groups from associating with overseas political organisations. It would bring back a law requiring groups of more than 30 to apply for permission before holding public gatherings.

A PWC member said China's proposals stemmed from a fear of losing control, and of people running "amok" in the colony.