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Hong Kong to Delay Controversial Bill - 2003-07-07

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa now says he will delay a controversial anti-subversion bill, in the face of massive opposition and a government crisis. The move was announced early Monday after the sudden resignation of a key political ally.

After an emergency Cabinet meeting in the early hours of Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa gave a surprise victory to opponents of proposed anti-subversion legislation, known as Article 23 laws.

Mr. Tung said a final reading of the bill, scheduled for Wednesday, would be deferred. Mr. Tung did not say when the laws will be put to a vote. But for now, the time will be used to better explain the legislation to the Hong Kong people.

Mr. Tung's emergency Cabinet meeting was prompted by the sudden resignation of Liberal Party Chairman James Tien over the anti-subversion laws. Mr. Tien and his party have traditionally been political allies of Mr. Tung, but Mr. Tien insists passage of the anti-subversion laws should be delayed until at least December.

Mr. Tien says, if the legislation is not perfected, it will come to be viewed as a joke by the international community.

Mr. Tung had already bowed to public pressure Saturday, when he announced he would amend the bill to remove some of the more controversial elements. Those to be scrapped included provisions to ban groups affiliated with outlawed groups on mainland China and allowing police to conduct searches without warrants. The amendments would also add language to strengthen protection for journalists.

But his insistence that the bill be put to a vote Wednesday did not go over well with a broad group of critics, who wanted more time to study the wording of the new version of the Article 23 laws.

An estimated half-million people clogged the streets of Hong Kong on July first in a protest march against the proposed laws. Opponents fear the law will severely endanger the freedom and autonomy granted to the former British colony when it was handed over to China six years ago.

Under Article 23 of Hong Kong's post-handover constitution, known as the Basic Law, the territory is obliged to pass laws against treason, sedition, and theft of state secrets. But public anger has grown from a widespread perception that the government was trying to force the laws through without sufficient response to people's reservations.

That anger is fueled by a broader frustration with Mr. Tung's government itself, which they say has lost its ability to lead. Many July first protesters called for Mr. Tung's resignation, carrying placards that depicted the chief executive with a pie thrown in his face.

Commentaries in several of Hong Kong's leading newspapers say his backpedaling in the past few days is likely to embolden the public in its opposition to him - and raise the pressure for him to step aside.