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China Imposes New Legislature on Hong Kong

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Britain agreed to hand back this capitalist colony to China’s Communist government next July, part of the deal was that China would not interfere with Hong Kong’s institutions for 50 years.

But Saturday, despite strong protests from Britain, Hong Kong and Washington, China forged ahead with its first fundamental change: It unveiled a handpicked legislature that will replace Hong Kong’s democratically elected body after the takeover.

The shadow government will begin its work even before Hong Kong reverts to China, competing for power with the current, British-backed government.

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“It’s a sad and bad day for Hong Kong,” said the governor, Chris Patten, portraying the move as a step backward for a population that had tasted democracy under electoral reforms he introduced in 1992 against China’s wishes.

“The reality is that over a million people in Hong Kong voted for the present Legislative Council. And up over the border now, 400 people--400--are voting in a bizarre farce for a so-called Provisional Legislature,” Patten said Saturday.

Beijing has declared the current legislature--and the laws it has passed protecting Hong Kong’s freedoms--to be illegal and will dissolve it after the takeover. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen on Saturday called Britain’s recent challenge to settle the issue in international court “ridiculous” and told dissenters to “accept the reality.”

On Saturday, 399 members of Hong Kong’s elite Selection Committee--a Chinese-organized group of the colony’s wealthiest and most influential residents--traded their limousines for buses and trains to cross into the neighboring Chinese city of Shenzhen to choose the replacement legislature. One member stayed home “sick” to protest the selection process.

The rest, chosen for their loyalty to China, dutifully participated in the pageant of Communist choreography. While a panel of Chinese leaders watched, the group placed their ballots in large red envelopes and silently slipped them into a ballot box.

The results held few surprises. Of the 60 new Provisional Legislature members, 51 are also members of the Selection Committee. Thirty-three are members of the old legislature.

The logistics of the rival governments could be confusing, with more than half of the existing legislature’s members serving both bodies simultaneously, conceivably working on one law in the Hong Kong legislature, then crossing to Shenzhen to prepare to undo it after the hand-over.

Tung Chee-hwa, the shipping magnate chosen Dec. 11 by the same committee to be Hong Kong’s next leader, said, “It’s a great day for Hong Kong.”

In Shenzhen on Saturday he told reporters: “By and large, Hong Kong not only accepts but supports the Provisional Legislature. Hong Kong knows this is reality, and it will only be for a limited time.”

Tung promised to dissolve the provisional body and hold legislative elections in 1998.

Despite that pledge, critics see the dissolution of the current government as a dangerous move that could undermine the fragile foundation of Hong Kong’s promised autonomy after 1997.

A legislature appointed by China will make laws dictated by China and ignore Hong Kong’s interests, says Emily Lau, leader of the pro-democracy Frontier Party. “There’s every indication that they will make laws to keep real opposition out of office,” she said Saturday at a protest in front of China’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong. “It’s abominable.”

Lau, one of Hong Kong’s most popular and outspoken democracy leaders, was arrested last week while protesting what she called the “fake election” of Tung, and she is considered a probable target of new restrictive legislation. Analysts say the Provisional Legislature could pass laws banning anyone with a police record from running for office as a way of dampening opposition.

Already, some politicians are feeling new restrictions in the run-up to 1997. On the Hong Kong side of the border, a small cluster of demonstrators on Saturday denounced the orchestrated exercise on the other side. Democratic Party member Andrew Cheng and others in the group have been banned from crossing into China after trying to deliver a petition to Beijing earlier this year.

“They don’t want to speak with us, but we have to state our opposition to the Provisional Legislature,” Cheng said. “Otherwise there’s no hope for democracy.”

The Provisional Legislature was convened in China to insulate it from legal challenges in Hong Kong and from protesters such as Cheng. But the group found another way to get their message across: They attached banners to 50 balloons, then released them toward China into the blue winter sky.


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