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China lays down the law in HK

By CNN's Marianne Bray


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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China's ruling that it has the sole power to initiate political change in Hong Kong is seen as the biggest step taken since 1997 to tighten reins over the pro-democracy movement.

In a clear message that China's central government is tightening its control over the rule of law, it has prohibited Hong Kong from initiating change without Beijing's approval.

"The right to amend the law belongs to the National People's Congress," Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary-general of the NPC's Standing Committee, told a press conference.

"The central government has the deciding power on changes of Hong Kong's political structure in the entire process."

Beijing officials say there is no cause for alarm in their interpretation of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.

Chinese lawmakers said they were propelled to carry out the interpretations on how the leader and politicians are chosen in Hong Kong to end disputes and confusion in the territory amid a rising tide of pro-democracy protests.

Before the ruling there was no clear-cut indication of who should initiate reform in the territory, but democrats in Hong Kong had assumed they just needed two-thirds of legislators to agree to move ahead.

The free-wheeling territory of 6.8 million people was given a high degree of autonomy when it was handed over to China in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" formula.

Beijing pledged to keep the special administrative region's capitalist systems and way of life "unchanged" for 50 years.

The Basic Law came into effect at the time of the handover allowing direct elections for the territory as soon as 2008, the year after unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's term expires.

But the constitution also states Beijing has a final say over any electoral changes, and residents have been watching to see how China interpreted the Basic Law ahead of legislative elections in September.

Around half a million people rallied in July last year, and a smaller number this January, demanding political change in a city where the leader is handpicked by a committee loyal to Beijing and less than half the legislature is directly elected.

While Hong Kong put a controversial anti-subversion law on hold following the mass uprising, in his annual policy speech in January, Tung skirted growing calls for voting rights, disappointing activists who had hoped he would launch public consultations early in the year.

Instead, Tung said any consultations on democracy would be with Beijing first, and established a task force to consult with Chinese leaders.

Playing hardball

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Outspoken democracy leader Martin Lee addresses demonstrators.

In recent months, Chinese President Hu Jintao's administration has played hardball, worried calls for more democracy in the territory will spill over to the mainland.

Beijing is also concerned about losing control over the territory, prompting it to issue rhetoric not seen in decades.

It stressed that Hong Kong's ruling elite must consist of "patriotic" elements and has labeled pro-democracy politicians "unpatriotic."

China's hard stance has cast into doubt Beijing's commitment to reform, and has also strained ties with Taiwan, the United States and the rest of the world. (Beijing jitters)

A visit by outspoken democracy leader Martin Lee to Washington in March rattled Beijing.

The United States has been upfront about wanting more democracy in Hong Kong, with the State Department repeating calls that it supports electoral reform and universal suffrage.

But China has responded by asking Washington to stop interfering in its internal affairs.

Democrats in Hong Kong see Beijing's move as an alarming sign of interference, China expert Willy Lam told CNN. They say it sets a bad precedent and allows China to step in as often as it wants in the territory's internal affairs.

China's tactic of muffling rising calls for voting rights has worked to lower expectations among the population.

Most opinion polls conducted last year showed 80 percent of the population supported universal suffrage by 2007, but now that number has fallen to around 60 percent, Lam said.

Meanwhile only 43 percent of 1,045 people interviewed in a poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong in February said they trusted Beijing, down from 50 percent at the end of December.


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