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Beijing's Review of Hong Kong's Mini Constitution Prompts Protests - 2004-04-02

China's leaders have opened a session where, among other things, they will review Hong Kong's mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law. Beijing's decision to carry out the review has prompted protests in Hong Kong by those who fear the review will threaten the growth of democracy in the former British colony.

The Chinese National People's Congress Standing Committee over the next few days will rule on how Hong Kong citizens will pick their leaders and lawmakers in the future.

Hong Kong's so-called Basic Law was drawn up by Chinese and British officials prior to Britain's handover of the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The aim was to preserve Hong Kong's free institutions and the rule of law, and eventually to establish a system in which the territory's residents could directly elect their leader and legislators.

Under the so-called "one country, two systems" arrangement, China promised to respect Hong Kong's autonomy for at least 50 years.

Chinese officials shocked Hong Kong residents last month when they announced that the Standing Committee would review the Basic Law, and issue an "interpretation" of the election provisions.

Democracy activists in Hong Kong fear this will amount to a rewriting of the law, leaving the territory with something less than full democracy.

Jackie Hung is a spokeswoman for the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized several pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.

"We are opposing the [NPC] interpretation of Basic Law, no matter what the result of that interpretation," she said. "We oppose this kind of action, because we didn't have enough consultation on this issue."

Peter Wong, an NPC delegate and supporter of the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government, defends China's decision to review and interpret the law.

"The Hong Kong Basic Law is a small constitution, but it is still within the ambit of the Chinese Constitution," he said. "The NPC standing committee has the right to do it. Some [members] of our community are overreacting to the fact that the NPC is now stepping in to make explanations."

Among the items of the Basic Law in dispute is a clause that states that changes to election laws can be made as needed "subsequent to the year 2007." There is disagreement on whether this means changes can be made during, or only after, 2007 - the year the next election for the territory's chief executive is due to take place.

Until now, the chief executive has essentially been selected by Beijing.

On Thursday, activists pushed their way into Hong Kong government headquarters, protesting the planned review. On Friday, there were shouts and scuffles as the police moved in to disperse the protesters.