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China review after HK protest



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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China has begun its review of Hong Kong's constitution, hours after police clashed with protesters, ejecting dozens who were rallying outside the territory's government headquarters.

The review, by a top parliamentary committee, is looking at re-interpreting clauses in Hong Kong's Basic Law including Beijing's plans to issue a binding ruling on the territory's election law.

This would set out how Hong Kong's leaders and lawmakers are chosen.

Critics say the review will stifle the pro-democracy movement ahead of September legislative elections. They also fear the territory's promised autonomy from Beijing, made when China took control of Hong Kong in 1997, is under its greatest threat.

About 90 democracy activists were among a crowd of about 1,000 who staged an overnight candlelit protest outside government offices on Thursday.

The protesters had sought to hand unpopular Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa a letter demanding a stop to Beijing's review.

Local television showed police officers carrying struggling protesters one by one after they moved in before dawn to eject them. Two people were arrested and charged with assaulting police officers, police officials said.

"Disgusting! Stop police violence!" the demonstrators shouted as they scuffled with police.

Hong Kong's Chief Secretary Donald Tsang urged the protesters to trust Beijing, saying China had Hong Kong's best interests in mind.

"We had the economic crisis, then SARS. Every time the country helps us out and asks nothing in return... so I believe over this matter of constitutional reform, it will approach it with only the interests of Hong Kong at heart," he said.

But most in Hong Kong are against the review, opinion polls indicate, and want direct elections as early as 2007.

"It's like a final nail to the coffin of 'one China, two systems' and I want to show my protest," demonstrator May Wong told CNN.

"It is the first blatant intervention uninitiated by any of the authorities in Hong Kong," Michael Degolyer of Hong Kong's Transition Project said.

"What happens now is, if the standing committee can initiate on its own an interpretation or reinterpretation of virtually any provision of the basic law at any time -- where then is autonomy at all?"

The protest is the latest of many in Hong Kong over the past year, most of them sparked by distrust and anger over the rule of the un-elected Tung.

More than half a million people took to the streets in protest last July over a security bill Tung and his government were trying to push into law at Beijing's behest. The bill was later dumped.

The Chinese government has condemned the growing push for democracy in Hong Kong, fearing it may spill across the border.

Critics say even the limited democracy that currently exists in Hong Kong is threatened by the review.

"If they interpret the basic law this time, they can also further interpret the basic law and say that these legislative councilors who in the eye of the central government are unpatriotic, are not upholding the basic law, then they will bar all democracy fighters," Lee Cheuk-yan, one of 24 elected members in the 60-seat legislature, said.

Under Hong Kong's Basic Law, which has guided the territory since its handover from British rule in 1997, election changes can be undertaken "if there is a need ... subsequent to the year 2007."

It fails to specify who determines if the need exists.


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