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China turns up heat on HK democrats

Many people in Hong Kong are worried about the pace of democratic reforms.
Many people in Hong Kong are worried about the pace of democratic reforms.

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HONG KONG, China (Reuters) -- China has launched one of its strongest attacks on democrats in Hong Kong, accusing them of trying to overthrow the central government and colluding with pro-independence forces in Taiwan and foreign powers.

"Some people continue to participate in or even lead political organizations aiming at opposing the leadership of the Communist Party and subverting the central government, using democracy as a shield," wrote Tang Hua, deputy chief editor of the official Xinhua news agency's Outlook magazine.

The commentary was carried in full by Xinhua on Tuesday and was widely reported in Hong Kong newspapers on Wednesday.

The article did not name names, but it was clear that it was referring to Hong Kong's pro-democracy politicians and activists.

One of Hong Kong's main Beijing-funded newspapers, Wen Wei Po, said it referred to prominent pro-democracy lawmakers such as Martin Lee and Emily Lau.

"It's just not true, I'm not a member of any pro-independence or anti-independence movement in Taiwan. I respect the wishes of Taiwan people," Lau said.

"I have never donated money or anything to them, so you can't say I support it...and I've always said Taiwan is part of China."

The commentary said democrats will not be allowed to usurp power in the city, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

"Among those trying to join the ranks of rulers in Hong Kong there is a minority whose deeds and words are obviously against the requirement of loving the country and Hong Kong," it said.

It also said some people had endangered China's state security by opposing a controversial anti-subversion law, which Beijing has long wanted Hong Kong to enact.

Commentator Andy Ho said it was the sharpest attack China has ever made on the democrats in Hong Kong.

"This is the harshest attack and the most sustained campaign against the democrats that I can remember," Ho said.

"It appears relatively junior Beijing officials have been authorized to lecture Hong Kong officials, when previously they would not have said anything."

Beijing risks backlash

Half a million people protested last July against the planned security legislation, which critics said would threaten basic rights and freedoms. The bill was later shelved.

The commentary also attacked those who "openly express support for independence in Taiwan."

"We must identify their vicious intentions and we can never allow them to usurp the ruling power in Hong Kong," it charged.

China fears calls for democracy in Hong Kong may spread to the mainland. It worries Hong Kong could demand independence, even though most people here have embraced Chinese rule and the many economic perks Beijing has provided.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be a renegade province, and has threatened to attack it if it formally declares independence. When it took back control of Hong Kong it was seen as a major step in reunifying the country.

The Xinhua commentary comes as Beijing tries to dampen calls for more democracy in this former British colony.

In recent weeks, China's official media and experts have issued many thinly-veiled warnings that the Communist Party will not tolerate universal suffrage in Hong Kong anytime soon.

They have even invoked the words of China's late revered leader Deng Xiaoping, saying only patriots should run the city.

Beijing selects Hong Kong's leader and most of its lawmakers, but after years of government policy blunders many residents are agitating to directly elect their own leaders as soon as 2007.

Beijing's increasingly hardline rhetoric has spooked some Hong Kong people. A recent opinion poll showed that slightly fewer people wanted to push for direct elections in 2007.

But some commentators warn China's tough talk could backfire.

"People may lower their decibels but they are more annoyed and may end up supporting the democrats" in key Legislative Council elections in September, said Ho.

Hong Kong's constitution allows the possibility of direct elections from 2007 but does not say when or provide a roadmap. It also gives Beijing the final say over any reforms.



Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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