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HK backtracks on bill

Hong Kong, July 5 (Reuters): Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa, struggling to defuse the territory’s biggest political crisis in years, bowed to an outpouring of popular protest today and withdrew two controversial clauses of an anti-subversion bill.

“After repeated and detailed discussions, we have decided to make amendments to further allay people’s fears,” Tung told a news conference, looking weary after days of crisis talks with his cabinet and senior advisers.

“I hope that after making the changes it will gain the acceptance of legislators.”

Tung said he would withdraw a provision which would have given police sweeping search powers and scrap another which would have allowed the banning of groups in Hong Kong if they were outlawed on the mainland. The government will also strengthen safeguards on press freedom. Journalists who report Chinese state secrets will be able to defend themselves if the news is in the public interest.

Half a million protesters took to Hong Kong’s streets on Tuesday to denounce the anti-subversion law in the city’s biggest demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Critics fear the law will trample basic human rights and that dissent may soon be treated the same way it is in mainland China. The Falun Gong spiritual group, for instance, practises freely in Hong Kong but has been banned in China as an “evil cult”. Many want the bill postponed outright to allow for more public consultation. The bill is the most important piece of legislation in Hong Kong since Britain returned it to Chinese rule in 1997.

“Mr Tung’s three major concessions are good signs, it augurs very well because he’s finally woken up,” said Martin Lee, one of Hong Kong’s most vocal democracy advocates.

“The pity is, why go half the way but not all the way'” he said. Several Hong Kong politicians have asked Beijing to step in, stoking fears the territory’s autonomy is under threat. Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy after its return to China, although critics say there has been a subtle erosion of its freedoms.

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