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Hong Kong's Jitters Just Got Worse (Int'l Edition)

International -- Asian Business: HONG KONG


More signals that Beijing may take a hard line in Hong Kong

An honest civil service, political freedoms, an independent legislature. The citizens of Hong Kong think these three elements of their political and civic life are vital to preserving the territory's integrity after the British depart June 30. Many are concerned that China will undermine these institutions. In January, they got plenty more to worry about.

For one, a Chinese subcommittee preparing for the colony's return recommended that key parts of Hong Kong's Bill of Rights and other laws be scrapped. The subcommittee also wants to reinstate old laws that restrict public gatherings. The proposed changes could not only hurt human rights laws, they could also create uncertainty about what laws should be applied in Hong Kong. "They're introducing an element of arbitrariness into our legal system," says Nihal Jayawickrama, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

The attack on the Bill of Rights is bad enough. But Hong Kong must also deal with troubling new questions about the independence of the civil service, specifically allegations that a top bureaucrat was too close to Beijing.

The controversy concerns Laurence Leung, the director of Hong Kong's Immigration Department, who resigned last summer, ostensibly for personal reasons. In January, an administration official said Leung was forced out because he failed to disclose investments in Canadian real estate as well as investments with Chinese-backed businesses.

Yet many members of the Legislative Council (Legco) suspect the government is covering up a more serious transgression involving Leung's links with Beijing. One rumor is that Leung passed on the names of Hong Kong applicants for British passports. Civil service chief Anson Chan has told Legco she knows of no evidence that Leung passed on names or was a spy. But many legislators are still disturbed by the government's reticence. Chan, for example, did discuss some details of the case--but only with members of a special Legco committee in a closed meeting.

LAST CHANCE. The hearings would seem to be a last bid by Legco, which will be dissolved after the handover, to root out Hong Kong corruption. But some pro-China members of Legco think the legislature is overstepping. The current investigation "is not a hearing--it's a trial," says Legco member David Chu. He says that under Chinese rule, Hong Kong lawmakers will need to rethink the way they pursue such inquiries. "We seem to have the idea that transparency is everything," he says. "Total transparency is not the solution to everything."

That's hardly the kind of talk that will comfort Hong Kong's democrats. They already fear the impact of the provisional legislature China has hand-picked to run Hong Kong. The Chinese want this group to replace Legco after the handover, and it had its first meeting in January in China. Many pro-China members of Legco, including Chu, are also members of the provisional legislature. Other provisional legislature members, such as Allen Lee, chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, insist they won't simply kowtow to China. But many in Hong Kong fear the body will just rubber-stamp all of Beijing's laws. In the jittery days leading to the handover, those fears are bound to increase.By Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong

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