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China raps Hong Kong over criticism

Further erosion seen in autonomy

HONG KONG -- Clamping down further on Hong Kong's autonomy, Beijing warned the territory's Legislature yesterday that it has no right to criticize the central government's decision to rule out full democracy in the near future.

The state-run Xinhua news agency quoted a top official with China's liaison office in Hong Kong as saying local legislators would be acting unconstitutionally if they consider motions that express "discontent with" or "condemn" China's ruling on democratic reform.

It was the first such warning since the territory reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Another top Chinese official branded the Legislature's democracy advocates as "bananas" -- yellow-skinned Chinese with Western beliefs. "These people, who bad-mouth China and Hong Kong, are sinners of the Chinese nation," Cheng Siwei, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, was quoted as saying by the Chinese newspaper Ming Pao. "They are just like bananas, yellow outside but white inside."

The statements were made after Hong Kong's Legislative Council president, Rita Fan, rejected an attempt by opposition legislators to raise a nonbinding motion criticizing Beijing's decision.

Prodemocracy forces say Beijing unilaterally rewrote the territory's constitution, the Basic Law, when it ruled out direct elections of Hong Kong's next leader in 2007 and all legislators in 2008. They say the central government is rolling back freedom of speech, one of the Western-style civil liberties guaranteed to this former British colony.

"It's trying to curtail our right of free speech, step by step, from the Legislature, the media, and eventually the public at large," said Albert Ho, a prodemocracy legislator who tried but failed Friday to launch the motion attacking Beijing's decision on election rules.

Another opposition legislator, Lee Cheuk-yan, said the Xinhua report "sounded an alarm" that Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy is being eroded rapidly.

Hong Kong's Basic Law holds out the possibility of full democracy in the next few years, but China's top legislative panel ruled April 26 that the move must be delayed because it could cause social or economic instability.

Hong Kong residents have clamored for the right to choose the successor to Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who has been in charge since the 1997 handover but is enormously unpopular.

Beijing views the push for democracy with great suspicion. The central government has been alarmed by the political situation in Hong Kong since July 1, when 500,000 people marched in opposition to an antisubversion bill seen as a threat to freedoms. Tung had to withdraw the measure.

Ordinary voters will be allowed to choose 30 of 60 Legislative Council seats in September, up from 24 last time. The other seats will be chosen by special interest groups -- such as businessmen, bankers, and doctors -- who tend to side with Beijing.

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