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Blair Praises Hong Kong Leaders for Handling of Political Crisis - 2003-07-23


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has praised Hong Kong's leaders for listening to the public, and postponing adoption of controversial security laws that sparked a political crisis. Mr. Blair says public trust in government is key to maintaining prosperity.

Prime Minister Tony Blair emphasized Hong Kong's success in maintaining stability in the face of adversity, six years after Britain handed the territory back to China, with guarantees of relative autonomy.

He praised the local government for its handling of the recent SARS outbreak, a weak economy and for postponing a controversial national security bill, which many fear could damage media freedoms, civil liberties and give communist China too much power to interfere in Hong Kong's affairs.

"The authorities here are very much listening to what people say," he said.

The security legislation has spurred three mass demonstrations since July 1 and public calls for direct elections of the Chinese territory's leader.

After meeting with Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Mr. Blair said he was pleased public concern was heeded, first by amending the proposed laws, and then delaying passage until there could be more consultation.

The Hong Kong government announced Wednesday that it plans to reopen public consultations on the anti-subversion legislation in September.

Prime Minister Blair says it is important that Mr. Tung keep listening to the people to avoid a damaging loss of public trust.

"It is confidence and trust that turn the wheels of commerce. Without confidence that contracts will be honored, that the rule of law will be upheld and trust that people will be treated fairly - without the existence of these elements, prosperity suffers," the prime minister said.

Mr. Tung has resisted talks on further democratic reforms in the legislature. And despite backing Mr. Tung, the British prime minister reminded him that he has a legal obligation to move toward greater democracy with popular elections.

"We hope that Hong Kong will make early progress toward the basic law's ultimate aim of election of the chief executive and all members of the legislative council by universal suffrage," he said.

China looks set to allow for gradual changes to Hong Kong's system of appointed leaders. Tuesday, Tang Jiaxuan, a top mainland official in Hong Kong, said there should be economic, political and other reforms to improve the livelihood of Hong Kong people.

Mr. Blair finishes his Asia tour in Hong Kong, after visits to China, South Korea and Japan to discuss how to press North Korea into multilateral talks on ending its nuclear weapons program.