China strengthens its grip on pace of Hong Kong reforms


BEIJING - China tightened the leash yesterday on Hong Kong activists who are trying to speed up democratic reforms, saying Beijing will decide how far and how fast the territory can move toward direct elections.

The announcement angered pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, some of whom said it might trigger greater public discontent.

In a ruling by the National People's Congress, Beijing said it had the sole right to interpret how Hong Kong could apply its "Basic Law," or mini-constitution, to hold its elections.

"The central authorities have the power to decide such matters," said Qiao Xiaoyang, the deputy secretary-general of the congress' standing committee.

Qiao said that Beijing shared the goal of eventual direct elections for Hong Kong, one of the freest cities in East Asia, but that China would closely oversee "gradual and orderly progress" toward that goal. All proposed political reforms must be submitted for approval to the National People's Congress, he said.

Beijing has watched with a "very high degree of concern" for the past nine months as street rallies erupted in Hong Kong amid emotional public debate about the city's future. It felt it had "no option but to come out" with an interpretation of the territory's charter, Qiao said. He called Beijing's authority over Hong Kong "simply indisputable."

Hong Kong, a region of 7 million people, returned to China's control in 1997 after 150 years as a British colony. Beijing pledged that Hong Kong's residents would retain wide-ranging autonomy under the doctrine of "One Country, Two Systems."

Residents have no voice in choosing their territory's chief executive, but they will be permitted to pick 30 of 60 legislators in September, an increase from the 24 they picked in November. Pro-democracy groups are demanding direct elections of the chief executive, whom Beijing appoints, and all lawmakers by 2007.

Activists decried yesterday's ruling as a move to dampen democratic aspirations.

"The message is very clear: They are the master. We are the slaves," said Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.

"There's no real 'One Country, Two Systems,'" he said in a telephone interview. "It's always 'One Country, One-and-a-Half Systems' or 1.05 systems."

Political commentator Andy Ho said on CNN's Asian broadcast that the decision was sure to spark a backlash. While mass street protests July 1 and Jan. 1 focused on Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, whom many residents see as ineffective, future rallies may protest Beijing's control of the city, he said.

In September's legislative elections, he said, "people will vote overwhelmingly for the democratic activists."

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