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Hong Kong Leader to Soften Controversial Anti-Subversion Legislation - 2003-07-05

In the face of massive public discontent and waning political support, Hong Kong's leader says he will soften controversial anti-subversion legislation that many in Hong Kong fear will damage civil liberties. A battle still looms over when the legislation will be voted on.

Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, announced Saturday that new safeguards for media freedoms will be written into the anti-subversion legislation proposed by his government.

At a news conference, Mr. Tung said he has agreed to new amendments to those provisions that have prompted the most controversy.

Mr. Tung says he will also delete provisions of the laws that allow the police to make searches without an arrest warrant, and that allow Hong Kong to ban local branches of groups outlawed on the Mainland.

These new amendments come after half a million people took to the streets on July 1, protesting both the legislation and Mr. Tung's handling of the government.

Mr. Tung acknowledged that he agreed to the changes because of public discontent.

"We have listened and understood the current concerns of the community over the legislative proposals, In order to fully allay the concerns of the community, we have agreed to introduce further amendments," he said.

The United States and many European countries had urged Mr. Tung to drop or amend the legislation, arguing such laws could compromise the autonomy granted Hong Kong in 1997, when the British colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty.

Under the so-called "one country, two systems" policy, Hong Kong has retained many freedoms not enjoyed on the Mainland.

Mr. Tung's concessions came after a number of his traditional supporters seemed to be deserting him in the wake of the huge protest. In a surprise move, the head of the pro-business Liberal Party, normally Mr. Tung's staunch supporter, flew to Beijing this week to ask the central government to postpone a final vote on the legislation, scheduled here for next Wednesday.

After Mr. Tung's announcement Saturday, a Liberal Party member said the party still favors delaying the vote.

Liberal Party member Miriam Lau says her party will gauge the public's response before deciding how to vote on the amended legislation.

Other legislators say they need time to review the new amendments before taking a position. Some government supporters, however, welcomed the amendments and say they are ready to vote on Wednesday.

Tsang Yok-sing, the leader of Hong Kong's biggest pro-China party, now thinks the legislation should face a vote on Wednesday as planned.

Mr. Tung says he will press ahead with next week's vote, noting that as part of China, Hong Kong is required to enact national security laws.

The new amendments have not discouraged plans for another mass public demonstration, scheduled to be held outside the legislative chambers during the final vote.