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Hong Kong's Bill of Rights Stands on Shaky Foundation

IT took the people of Hong Kong 150 years to secure a bill of rights from Britain. Now, in just six years, China's leaders could wrest it away. Hours after Hong Kong's legislature passed a bill of rights earlier this month, Beijing criticized it as detrimental to the future legal system for Hong Kong. The Chinese government said on June 6 it would consider repealing the document when it regains sovereignty over the territory in 1997.

By threatening to dislodge a foundation stone for basic liberties, Beijing has undermined its written pledge to respect political autonomy and individual rights in Hong Kong after 1997, say local advocates for civil liberties.

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For its part, Britain condoned the bill for reasons of politics, not principle, the rights supporters say. It only advanced the bill of rights after resisting pressure from local and foreign rights advocates for several months.

Britain's half-hearted commitment to the promotion of basic liberties is clearly illustrated by a shortcoming in the judicial system, the liberal activists say: Britain has declined to give citizens an accessible administrative tool for striking down laws that restrict their freedoms before Beijing takes control in 1997.

The obstacles to civil liberties are numerous. Among them:

Television stations are required to submit news footage to government censorship. (This law has never been enforced.)

Demonstrators must obtain official approval before using megaphones at public rallies. Also, the government has proposed a law banning political parties from public fundraising.

Societies must register with the police commissioner and, if directed, provide information on membership and funding. Many societies, including those campaigning for reform in China, skirt the law by registering as companies.

British officials have declined to establish a public commission that would consider grievances about these regulations.

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Without the expertise and financial aid of a human rights commission, the bill of rights is hobbled from the start. Most citizens cannot afford the high financial cost of defending their freedoms in court, lawyers say.

``It is essential to have a human rights commission with power of adjudication,'' says Johannes Chan, a law professor at Hong Kong University. ``Otherwise those who tend to suffer most frequently cannot pay for the legal fees.''

Widespread ignorance about individual freedoms and the absence of democratic institutions are two weak pillars in the shaky edifice of civil liberties for Hong Kong. A bill outlining basic freedoms cannot make up for such faults, lawyers and legislators say.

British authorities plan only a perfunctory campaign to educate Hong Kong citizens about their rights. Under pressure from the Chinese government, the school curriculum has excluded any discussion of basic civic issues.

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