Hong Kong's autonomy curbed

Beijing Monday ruled out direct elections for Hong Kong in 2007, dealing a blow to pro-democracy activists.

Some 24 hours after China's highest authorities ruled out the possibility of direct elections in Hong Kong - a decision that stunned and angered many ordinary people there and brought the strongest censure yet from the US and Britain - a prestigious group of constitutional scholars in Hong Kong has described Beijing's actions as "a naked use of power with no legal basis."

Over the past 10 months residents have marched in five peaceful protests asking for greater democracy in Hong Kong. They voted last November in local elections that clearly rebuffed Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing's handpicked leader. In civic groups and in the press they spoke against Mr. Tung's handling of SARS, the economy, proposed security laws, and the relationship with Beijing. Polls show 60 percent want direct elections; many assumed they had this right through the Basic Law under which Britain handed the colony over to China and that supposedly guarantees Hong Kong's autonomy until 2047.

Yet in the most dramatic seizure of political control since the 1997 handover, Beijing ruled out direct elections for the chief executive post in 2007 and any expansion of limited legislative elections in 2008, casting doubts on how autonomous Hong Kong actually is. The decision is draconian enough, say some Hong Kong experts, that the city could undergo a "second exodus" of top talent - a smaller version of the flood of people who left in the period of the 1997 takeover.

On Monday, Qiao Xiaoyang, a representative from the paramount standing committee of China's communist party, stated that elections were not needed and could bring instability. He refused to offer any timetable for reforms, something long demanded in the city.

"Governments that are led by the nose by public opinion are irresponsible," said Mr. Qiao.

Chief Executive Tung called for Hong Kong people to remain calm and urged citizens "not to waste time on confrontations, collisions, or arguments." China's foreign minister Li Zhaoxing went further, saying to reporters Monday that "We are Chinese. Are you clear on that? Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong."

Legal experts, however, question how China's actions fit into the Basic Law, which they say acts as a kind of manual for expanding the will of the people in Hong Kong. The document and the city's autonomy, they say, mean little if China's leaders now assert that only they may interpret the law and regulate autonomy.

Yet the decisions by Beijing are not merely a matter for lawyerly debate, but "a question for the world," says Margaret Ng, a member of the Article 45 Concern Group, a team of constitutional scholars. She also represents the legal profession in Hong Kong's legislature.

"China's standing committee has precluded the arrival of suffrage in Hong Kong's political evolution," Ms. Ng argues. "This goes past an interpretation or something that is extraconstitutional. They have far exceeded their powers. This is a naked use of power, and the world should ask if China's highest authority is going to be bound by law, or not."

This view appeared to get some indirect backing by the White House as well as from Bruce Keith, the US consul general in Hong Kong. "The imposition of the Central authority's outcome on a debate that has not yet occurred in Hong Kong is an erosion of the high degree of autonomy [laid out by the] Basic Law," he said.

"People are mad as hell, really deeply angry, and now the problem is that doubts about the good faith of their own government are serious," says Michael DeGolyer, head of the Transition Project at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

Hong Kong-nese are famously mild, and the city streets have rarely been a place for civil strife. Few predict this will change. Last July's epic downtown march against "antisubversion laws" by some 500,000 people was entirely peaceful.

This week, when Tung called for citizens to remain calm, notes government spokesman Paul Brown, "he was just saying that a lot of people will be disappointed [over Beijing's decision], but then let's get on with things. The question is the pace of democracy, not whether we will have it. Some people wanted it in 2007. But our sovereign has decided that is too soon."

Chinese officials, including the foreign minister, have been arguing that even without democratic reforms, Hong Kong-nese today have more say than they did under British rule. "Before 1997, the Hong Kong compatriots, including your mothers and fathers, had no democracy," argues Mr. Li. "Now, everything follows the rule of law, and this is real democracy."

Yet many Hong Kong observers ardently disagree with this interpretation. They point out that in the final period of British rule, under Chris Patten, there was an entire level of government, with independent review and budget-making powers, that was shut down by Beijing. During the 1990s there were direct local elections for the legislature; today, fewer seats are locally elected.

Moreover, under the British system, some 2 million voters in the city cast ballots tied to seats that represented doctors, lawyers, engineers, skilled labor, and so on. Those seats now make up half the legislature. Yet today only 155,000 can register to vote for these "functional constituency" seats.

"Under Patten, you had three levels of government, and now one entire strata has been eliminated," says Mr. DeGolyer. "We were about as close as you could get to democratic elections. We are far from that now."

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