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China Overpowers Hong Kong Courts

June 26, 1999

HONG KONG (AP) _ After two years of mostly hands-off control of Hong Kong, China showed its power Saturday, telling Hong Kong’s highest court it had ruled wrongly in an immigration case and had to start interpreting the law differently.

The Hong Kong government had asked China to intervene in the case that threatened to flood the territory with migrants from the mainland, saying it hopes this was a one-time plea for help from Beijing.

But critics said the territory was surrendering some of its autonomy in a dangerous precedent. Since returning to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing has largely left the former British colony alone, allowing anti-communist protests, active opposition parties and a feisty press.

Outside government headquarters, hundreds of would-be migrants from the mainland and political activists shouted and waved signs, accusing Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa of ruining the territory’s rule of law _ viewed as crucial to the former British colony’s position as an international finance center.

Tung accused critics of ignoring ``the constitutional basis on which we have solved the problem,″ saying they are trying to spread misinformation through the international news media.

``We treasure the rule of law as one of the most important pillars of Hong Kong’s success,″ said Tung, who also told reporters that appealing to Beijing ``is not something we would like to do again if we can help it.″

Critics scoffed.

``Mr. Tung, in his statement today, kept repeating that he cared about the rule of law,″ said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. ``He seems to believe that if he keeps saying that, people will overlook what he has actually done. He will go down in history for having fatally damaged the legal system, which was Hong Kong’s pride.″

Most Hong Kong residents can go to mainland China freely, but mainlanders must have permits from Chinese immigration offices to travel in the other direction.

At immediate issue in the case was how many Chinese children born to Hong Kong parents have the right to live in affluent Hong Kong, where generations of migrants have come in search of a better life.

Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal found in January that Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, granted any mainland Chinese with one Hong Kong parent the right to live here _ even if the parent obtained residency rights after the child was born.

Hong Kong’s government panicked, saying about 1.6 million people could flood in over the next decade to a city of 6.8 million that is already one of the most congested places on earth. Hong Kong’s social and education systems could not cope, the government warned.

The Standing Committee of the People’s National Congress in Beijing said Saturday that the Hong Kong court had erred, and declared that the Basic Law was intended to give the right of abode only to children of parents who are Hong Kong residents when the children are born. That would keep out the vast majority of the would-be immigrants.

In a sharply worded decision, the authorities in Beijing also said Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal violated the territory’s constitution by not consulting the Chinese legislature before deciding a case that concerned China’s state affairs.

The Standing Committee reasserted China’s sovereign rule over Hong Kong and the Chinese legislature’s right to interpret the Basic Law, which took effect as Britain lost control of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

Although Hong Kong is part of China, it enjoys much autonomy under an arrangement known as ``one country, two systems.″ The Court of Final Appeal is supposed to have the final say on legal disputes, and some critics urged the Hong Kong courts to disregard Beijing’s ruling.

The Hong Kong Bar Association said it wants Beijing to stay out of Hong Kong’s English-style courts, where barristers and judges still wear wigs in a holdover from colonial days.

Beijing’s ruling did not affect the outcome of the lawsuit decided by the Court of Final Appeal, in which 81 immigrants won the right to stay. The lead plaintiff was Chan Kam Nga, a mainland girl whose parents obtained Hong Kong residency after her birth.

Perhaps hoping to quiet the local protests, Hong Kong said it would give residency to some 3,700 Chinese who arrived in Hong Kong ahead of the January ruling. New immigration rules are planned to keep most others out.

Attorneys for the immigrants were already working on new lawsuits to challenge Beijing’s interpretation. Many people say the issues are broader than immigration.

``I like Hong Kong. This is my place, my homeland. I don’t want it harmed from mainland China,″ said Lo Suk-ling, a student. ``In 1997, they said it wouldn’t be changed for 50 years, but now it’s been changed. I don’t think the overstayers are the main issue. The mainland wants to show their power.″

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