After hours of angry debate and noisy outside protest, Hong Kong's lawmakers approved a law Wednesday granting mainland Chinese leaders the right to fire the territory's top official.
The decision sparked outrage among pro-democracy activists, who warned that the former British colony is sacrificing some of the autonomy promised it under the "one country, two systems" arrangement designed to preserve Hong Kong's distinctive brand of capitalism and its commitment to civil liberties.
Critics have condemned what they see as a steady erosion of Hong Kong's independence since its reversion to Chinese control four years ago. But it was unclear Wednesday just how much the new law would change the political situation in Hong Kong, whose current leader, Tung Chee-hwa, already essentially serves at the pleasure of the mainland government.
Hong Kong officials say the territory's mini-constitution, or Basic Law, already implies that Beijing can dismiss a chief executive who fails to fulfill the duties of the job.
Tung, a former shipping magnate handpicked by Beijing to lead Hong Kong, was in Washington on Wednesday, where he met with President Bush at the White House. The two leaders discussed Hong Kong's economy and religious freedom, according to a senior Bush administration official.
Tung told reporters afterward that he assured the president that religious freedom is "alive and kicking and doing well" in Hong Kong. The men also discussed Bush's trip to China planned for October.
The legislation approved in Tung's absence was seen by some as insurance that China's Communist leaders will continue to have final say over who leads the small but wealthy enclave of 6.7 million people. That almost certainly will mean Tung's reappointment next year to a second term as chief executive, despite his deep unpopularity among many Hong Kong residents.
"Tung is happy to be a puppet, and he wants to make sure that others who come along will become puppets," democracy advocate Martin Lee said, Associated Press reported.
Lee, one of Hong Kong's leading opposition figures, castigated the legislature for handing Hong Kong's autonomy to Beijing on "a silver plate."
A number of pro-democratic lawmakers staged a walkout following the vote, which capped a day of impassioned argument and raucous demonstration. Activists outside Hong Kong's Legislative Council chamber wrapped a banner around the building bearing the signatures of tens of thousands of people urging the government to democratize.
Some want direct election of Hong Kong's leader. Tung was selected four years ago by a committee whose members were carefully vetted by the Chinese government. Under the new law, which laid out the ground rules for the leadership selection, the next leader is to be appointed in March by an expanded committee that detractors say is still weighted in Beijing's favor.
The section of the law giving Beijing the power to sack the chief executive came in an amendment to the bill. Both the added clause and the amended bill were passed by ample majorities.
Since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control on July 1, 1997, political observers have closely watched how well Beijing and Hong Kong adhere to the "one country, two systems" formula.
Before Wednesday's action, a series of legal rulings over residency rights had already led to charges that the territory was surrendering some of its autonomy.
Official condemnation of the Falun Gong meditation movement, which is legal in the territory but banned on the mainland, also stirred up fears that Hong Kong's leaders were too eager to obey Beijing's orders.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.