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World: Letter From Hong Kong III

Hong Kong, 27 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Democratic activists in Hong Kong staged a demonstration last week to protest plans by a Beijing-appointed committee to repeal legislation on civil liberties when the British colony is returned to China in five months' time.

The activists, using a loud hailer to address a small crowd, gathered outside the official news agency, Xinhua, China's de facto headquarters in the territory, which reverts to Chinese sovereignty at midnight on June 30 after more than 150 years of colonial rule.

The activists staged their protest in the knowledge that, after the handover, such peaceful demonstrations, and even the use of loud hailers, will almost certainly need police permission.

A Beijing-backed panel has just proposed scrapping or altering 25 Hong Kong laws aimed at protecting democratic and civil rights when the colony becomes a Special Administrative Region of China.

The panel, made up of Chinese officials and pro-Beijing Hong Kong advisers, has been picked by China to replace the colony's Legislative Council -- its parliament -- elected in a democratic vote in 1995.

The new panel, which Beijing calls a Provisional Legislature, has recommended reintroducing authoritarian British colonial legislation restricting the right to stage peaceful demonstrations and requiring official approval to set up political organizations. In addition, it wants to impose controls on groups having links with overseas organizations and to dilute laws protecting individual privacy. The panel also recommends scrapping the democratic voting system, a reform belatedly pressed by Britain in the dying days of colonial rule.

One Western analyst said the moves, if approved by the National People's Congress, China's nominal parliament, will return Hong Kong to the days of draconian colonial rule, erasing a five-year effort by Britain to modify laws deemed repressive or inconsistent with its status as a modern and sophisticated international city.

The proposed rollback of civil liberties was greeted with dismay by local politicians representing the 6.4 million inhabitants of this freewheeling territory comprising Hong Kong island, a slice of the mainland, and a string of granite islands at the mouth of China's Pearl River.

Life goes on in Hong Kong -- during the weekend, big crowds, many of the women wrapped in fur coats against a snap of cold weather, flocked, as usual, to the ritzy department stores and teeming street markets -- but a sense of unease has deepened in the colony.

The United Democrats, the largest party in the elected legislature, fears China is reneging on its pledge to give the colony a high degree of autonomy, and to respect its freedoms and capitalist system for 50 years. Chairman Martin Lee said the new proposals will undermine the already fragile public and international confidence in the handover.

Rights groups worry about moves to gut the colony's 1991 Bill of Rights, in particular the law of habeas corpus, based on ancient English legislation that prevents people being arbitrarily arrested and held without trial. The Bill was introduced with British backing after China's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

British colonial governor Chris Patten, a target of China's derision because of his belated drive to introduce representative government said the new proposals will undermine the rule of law and says he will not cooperate with the new Beijing-backed legislature.

Both Britain and the United States have expressed dismay over what U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns called "any attempt to weaken civil liberties and basic freedoms in Hong Kong."

For its part, Beijing says many of the laws it will revoke were passed after 1984, when Britain and China signed the declaration to return Hong Kong to China and London promised not to change significantly the colony's laws or electoral system. Analysts note that Beijing has objected only to new laws concerning civil rights.

Hong Kong shipping tycoon Tung Chee-Hwa, chosen as the first Chinese administrator to lead the territory, defends the amendments and the plans to scrap the democratic assembly. Tung, who takes a strongly pro-Beijing line, speaks of the need to subjugate individual rights to "the good of the public at large." He pledges that elections for a new legislature will be held within a year of China's takeover.

Caught in the middle of this row are the Cantonese residents of Hong Kong. If, indeed, China adopts a heavy hand with this freewheeling, laissez-faire territory, they may have cause to reflect on the wisdom of the Chinese sage Lao Tze. He likened the governing of a country to the cooking of a small fish -- it shouldn't be overdone.