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People power forces HK bill volte face

Hong Kong, July 7 (Reuters): Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa, reeling after last week’s massive show of people power, postponed a vote on a controversial anti-subversion bill today after losing the support of a key legislative ally.

The stunning climbdown is likely to embarrass Tung’s backers in Beijing and raise fresh questions about how long the embattled chief executive can govern one of the world’s key financial centres, analysts said.

It is also expected to fuel demands for greater democracy in Hong Kong, where half-a-million people marched last Tuesday to denounce the security bill and demand freedom to elect their own leaders.

“Tung has lost control in the legislature, has lost the iron votes he thought he had. There is an enormous crisis in his administration,” said Allen Lee, a leading Hong Kong deputy to China’s parliament.

“Usually, at such times, the government should step down, or collapse. As to whether Tung will collapse or step down, I believe the decision is not purely Tung’s, but the Chinese government will have to deal with this crisis,” Lee said.

Many critics believe Tung was rushing the legislation through under pressure from Beijing, which fears Hong Kong could be used as a base for subversive activities.

Few analysts believe Beijing will sack Tung and risk appearing to meddle openly in Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule.

But they said pressure is growing for him at least to sack some unpopular cabinet figures. Firing Hong Kong’s leader would also be a setback for Beijing’s hopes of eventually luring rival Taiwan back to the fold under similar self-governance terms.

Taiwan said today the controversy in Hong Kong has dashed hopes that it might reunite with the mainland. “The recent development in Hong Kong shows the entire world ‘one country, two systems’ doesn’t work in Hong Kong and won’t work in Taiwan. It’s a total failure,” Taiwan Cabinet spokesperson Lin Chia-lung said.

Tung had to postpone the final reading of the bill after the leader of the pro-business Liberal Party quit his executive council yesterday, leaving the government facing the prospect of being unable to muster enough votes. The party has eight seats in the 60-seat legislative council.

The former shipping tycoon had rejected calls from party chairman James Tien to delay final votes on the bill until December to allow more discussion.

“In light of the position of the Liberal Party, we have decided, after detailed deliberations, to defer the resumption of the second reading of the bill,” Tung said in a statement issued before dawn today following an emergency cabinet meeting.

Tung’s announcement came just two days after he had agreed to water down some of the law’s most contentious provisions.

But critics say the bill is still too vague and poses the biggest threat to freedom in the former British colony since it reverted to China in 1997. They want clearer definitions for treason and subversion, which carry life jail terms. Tung said the government would step up efforts to explain the legislation to the public, but insisted it was constitutionally obliged to enact it.

He did not say when the bill would be resubmitted. But the government plainly does not want the corrosive issue to drag into 2004, when it could give a major boost to pro-democracy candidates running in Legislative Council elections.

Postponing the bill would cool political tensions but “further cripple the government’s authority and undermine public confidence in the Tung team”, the South China Morning Post said.

”The Tung administration is dead. We are, in effect, without an administration,” Stephen Brown, head of research at Kim Eng Securities, wrote in a column in The Standard newspaper.

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