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Response to US report on human rights

    In response to media enquiries, a Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau spokesman responded today (March 12) to comments in the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007 relating to Hong Kong's constitutional development and press freedom.

    The spokesman said that it was the Basic Law that prescribed for the first time in Hong Kong's history universal suffrage as the ultimate aim for Hong Kong's constitutional development.

    He said, "A timetable for attaining universal suffrage has been determined.

    "According to the decision adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) on December 29, 2007, while universal suffrage is not to be implemented in 2012, appropriate amendments consistent with the principle of gradual and orderly progress may be made to the methods for electing the Chief Executive (CE) and the Legislative Council (Legco).

    "The decision of the NPCSC also made clear the timetable for attaining universal suffrage. According to the decision, the CE may be elected by universal suffrage in 2017 and, after the CE has been elected by universal suffrage, all members of the Legco may be elected by universal suffrage in 2020. This carries most important significance for Hong Kong's constitutional development," the spokesman said.

    The spokesman added that, as reflected in opinion polls, the decision was well received by the community. According to the poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in January, more than 70% of the public accepted the NPCSC's Decision.

    "The Central Authorities and the HKSAR Government are fully committed to the implementation of universal suffrage according to the Basic Law. Now that the universal suffrage timetable has been set, the HKSAR Government will strive to work towards securing consensus within the community on how to further democratise the two electoral methods for 2012, so as to pave the way for attaining universal suffrage for the CE in 2017 and for Legco in 2020.

    "We have already established the Task Group on Constitutional Development under the Commission on Strategic Development to take forward discussions on the electoral methods for 2012. We hope that the task group will complete discussions around the middle of this year. The HKSAR Government will consolidate options which may be considered for amending the two electoral methods for 2012 in the fourth quarter of this year, and conduct another round of public consultation as early as possible.

    "The implementation of universal suffrage according to the Basic Law is part of our internal affairs. This is a matter for the HKSAR and the Central Authorities to deal with according to the Basic Law. We hope and believe that foreign governments will continue to respect this principle."

    Regarding interpretation of the Basic Law by the NPCSC, the spokesman emphasised that, in accordance with the Constitution and the Basic Law, the power to interpret the Basic Law was vested in the NPCSC.

    "The NPCSC's power to interpret the Basic Law is in general and unqualified terms. This principle is fully acknowledged and respected in Hong Kong and by its courts.

    "The exercise of that power by the NPCSC, therefore, has not, and could not have, in any way affected the independence of the Judiciary, the rule of law or Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy," he said.

    The spokesman said that the statement made in the report that "the Basic Law substantially limits the ability of the legislature to influence policy" was untrue.

    "According to the design of the Basic Law, the political structure implemented in the HKSAR is an executive-led system. The respective powers and responsibilities of the executive authorities and the legislature are clearly prescribed in the Basic Law. The relationship between the executive authorities and the legislature is one of mutual regulation and co-ordination," he said.

    The spokesman added that bills and budgets put forth by the Government had to be passed by the Legco before they could be implemented.

    "Clearly, we have a system in place that allows all government policies and legislative proposals to be widely, openly and frankly discussed in Hong Kong, and for the Government to make adjustments when necessary based on the input of legislators and other elements of society.

    "It is the HKSAR Government's consistent position that Article 74 of the Basic Law applies to legislative proposals introduced by the Legco Members by way of Committee Stage Amendments to Government Bills, as well as to the introduction of Members' Bills."

    On freedom of the press, the spokesman said, "Hong Kong has consistently upheld the freedom of speech and of the press. A free press flourishes in Hong Kong. More than 40 daily newspapers and 680 weekly periodicals are published in Hong Kong. Many international news agencies, newspapers and electronic media organisations have major operations here.

    "The media continues to perform its role rigorously in holding the Government accountable. The media reports freely in Hong Kong, commenting extensively and liberally on local and external matters, and on government policies, programmes and activities.

    "The free press in Hong Kong, with their rights and freedoms protected by the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, is the most effective safeguard against self-censorship. Ultimately, those working in the media world must protect the integrity of their profession," he said.

Ends/Wednesday, March 12, 2008