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China 'interprets' HK law to death
Paul Lin

`Beijing has taken away the right to instigate reform and strengthened its own role in the decision-making process. The people may be able to discuss political reform, but what good will it actually do? Beijing is sure to say no.'

A new interpretation of Hong Kong's Basic Law was ratified on April 6 in meetings of the 10th National People's Congress Central Standing Committee (CSC) in Beijing.

With 155 votes for the motion and one abstention, this kind of landslide victory with nary a peep of disagreement is the preserve of a totalitarian government, and clearly demonstrates that the committee's loyalties lie with the party, not the people. This phenomenon fuels the people's calls for democracy, and explains these leaders' complete inability to understand them.

Hence we have the new "interpretation," the second time that the Central Standing Committee has shed such new light on the Basic Law.

The first came in 1999, after a clause in the Basic Law stating that children of Hong Kong citizens living abroad could claim residency caused many thousands of people to pursue legal citizenship.

Some were turned away by the authorities, either for entering the territory illegally or for overstaying. This group succeeded in overturning these rulings in the courts. After all, how could they have entered illegally or overstayed if they had already been accorded permanent residency under the Basic Law?

Given this situation, the Hong Kong government argued that over a million new residents would proceed to vie for jobs and food with other Hong Kongers. Beijing, when asked to interpret the law following public protests, reversed the original decision of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.

This severely compromised the Hong Kong courts' independence and opened the door for Beijing's direct manipulation of Hong Kong's laws. In the end, the individuals who lost their case for residency, the children of Hong Kong citizens, held protests against Beijing's intervention that resulted in bloodshed.

This month's second Basic Law interpretation showed either that the law Beijing itself had praised was full of loopholes, or that Beijing decided it had offered too many concessions in the past. Since Hong Kong had already been returned to China, it was time to pull things another step closer to "one country, one system." This interpretation focused on the Basic Law sections governing the Special Administrative Region leader's appointment and the Legislative Council's formation.

Yet Beijing has gone beyond interpreting the law and has actually amended it, as it increases to five the original three criteria for revisions to the Legislative Council formation law. Originally, any proposed changes needed to be passed by at least two-thirds of the council members, then approved by the chief executive and finally by the NPC Central Standing Committee. Now these stages are to be preceeded by the chief executive announcing any proposed changes followed by a CSC decision.

With this, the right to instigate reforms via revision has been transferred from the council to the chief executive. If the latter decides he no longer sees the necessity for reforms, it will be very difficult for public opinion in Hong Kong to be realized. Even if the chief executive agrees to go ahead with reforms, there is the obstacle of the CSC.

Further hampering potential revisions, both the chief executive and the CSC will have the opportunity to block the process in the final two stages. Only 50 percent of the organization's members are democratically elected, and it will be extremely difficult for them to amass the required two-thirds majority.

What with the right to instigate reform in the hands of a chief executive appointed by Beijing, and the right of the unanimous CSC to veto such proposals twice in the process, any reform must pass five hurdles. This makes it next to impossible for Hong Kong's people to achieve their long-voiced dreams of democratic general elections.

Ever since Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong took responsibility for Hong Kong affairs, Beijing has been taking on a more canny, softer approach, only seemingly catering to the activists.

First, Beijing has made concessions by bringing forward electoral reforms to include the year 2007; they were originally to start after that year. This was the first consideration that they acceded to among the four points considered in the Basic Law's interpretation. The problem is that China has taken away the right to instigate reform and strengthened its own dominant role in the decision-making process.

The people may be able to discuss political reform but what good will it actually do? Beijing is sure to say no.

Second, Beijing has sent officials to Hong Kong to discuss the interpretation after previously refusing any communication with the democracy movement. Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa similarly refused to deal with activists prior to last year's July 1 protest rally.

More recently the Central Government in Hong Kong's Liaison Office (formerly the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua News Agency) has made contact with the democracy movement, especially with lawyers who had won many votes for the movement in local elections. Officials sent to Hong Kong from Beijing nowadays no longer avoid contact with democratic activists.

Beijing's softer approach has fooled some observers, including members of the movement and of media sympathetic to Beijing. The majority of Hong Kong residents, however, have their eyes wide open. The April 11 protest against Beijing's interpretation of the Basic Law tells us much about how people really feel in Hong Kong.

Paul Lin is a political commentator living in the United States. His articles appear in 'Taipei Times.'

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