updated 4/6/2004 8:03:59 AM ET 2004-04-06T12:03:59

China made a major ruling Tuesday on how Hong Kong chooses its leaders, saying the territory must submit proposed political reforms to Beijing for approval. Hong Kong activists immediately decried the decision.

The Chinese government’s National People’s Congress issued the ruling in an interpretation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Tsang Hin-chi, a Hong Kong delegate to the NPC, said the ruling also left open the possibility of a direct election in 2007 and allowed the current system to stay unchanged.

“If the system needs to be changed, it can be changed. But it can also stay the same,” Tsang said in remarks carried widely on Hong Kong television and radio. He called the ruling “very mild, very clear.”

“I hope people don’t oppose it blindly,” said Tsang, who is a member of the NPC’s decision-making standing committee, its top legislative panel.

The committee’s vote effectively ties the hands of the Hong Kong government by allowing only Beijing to initiate reforms — control that pro-democracy activists have vehemently lobbied against.

“This is like having to ask a robber if you can use your own money,” said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, a non-governmental organization. “The Hong Kong people have been robbed of their rights.”

A woman who answered the telephone at the NPC press office said discussions were under way but refused to give details. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing said it was “unclear” about the ruling.

NPC to vote on 'interpretations'
The NPC, in a surprise announcement March 26, said it would rule on the future of Hong Kong’s elections by voting on “interpretations” of the territory’s mini-constitution.

The legislature and government media haven’t elaborated on what the interpretations say but have touted them as necessary for the political well-being of the island and its people.

The mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, was written by the mainland when Hong Kong was returned from Britain’s administration in 1997. It sets out full democracy in the territory as an eventual goal but gives no timetable.

Many in Hong Kong see the NPC vote as an attempt to stifle the territory, which enjoys Western-style civil liberties typically denied in the mainland.

Opposition lawmaker James To called the decision “illegal” because it amounted to an amendment to the Basic Law — without proper procedures.

The law states electoral reform must be approved by Hong Kong’s legislature and leader, then the mainland’s legislature, To said.

He predicted a massive backlash, saying that “it will definitely intensify the tension between Hong Kong and the central government.”

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