China has warned Hong Kong's legislature it has no right to criticize a ruling by Beijing limiting the development of democracy in Hong Kong. The warning was the first attempt by Beijing to restrict legislative debate in Hong Kong since the colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The warning came in a dispatch late Friday from Xinhua, China's official news agency. It quoted an unnamed Chinese official in Hong Kong as saying the local legislature had no legal right to criticize the central government's decision last month ruling out full and direct elections in 2007 and 2008.
The unnamed official said Hong Kong legislators would be acting illegally and beyond their authority if they considered any motions that were critical of the ruling, or of the Chinese parliament for issuing it.
Under a formula known as "One Country, Two Systems," Hong Kong has continued since 1997 to enjoy Western-style freedoms, including freedom of speech, that are denied to citizens on the mainland.
However, the former colony's chief executive is essentially appointed by Beijing, and only a portion of the seats in the Legislative Council are directly elected.
Large segments of the Hong Kong public have been clamoring for direct election of both the chief executive and the legislature, when elections are next held in 2007 and 2008. The ruling last month denying such direct elections was the Chinese government's response.
Following Friday's warning, pro-democracy legislators accused Beijing of limiting Hong Kong's freedom of speech. One activist said Beijing was rolling back the "high degree of autonomy" Hong Kong was guaranteed at the time of the handover.
Only hours before the warning was issued, an attempt by legislators to debate a non-binding motion critical of Beijing's decision was blocked by the Legislative Council president.
Several hundred thousand Hong Kong residents took to the streets last July, calling among other things for full democracy. Beijing has responded by vilifying pro-democracy activists, calling them "sinners" and "unpatriotic."