20 November, 2002

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Britain has urged the government of Hong Kong to protect basic rights and freedoms as the former British colony prepares to pass an anti-subversion law demanded by the Chinese government.

Britain made the call during a visit to Hong Kong by Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji.

The British Consulate-General said in a statement any legislation that undermined the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms would be "seriously damaging" to the territory, which Britain handed back to China in 1997.

"It is important that the integrity and independence of Hong Kong's legal system, key factors in Hong Kong's success, are not compromised by the proposed legislation," the consulate said in the statement issued late on Monday.

"Any action which diminished press freedom or freedom of expression would not be in the best long-term interests of Hong Kong," it said.

Under a "one country, two systems" agreement between Britain and China on Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty, the territory was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy for 50 years.

China, concerned that Hong Kong could be used as a base from which to subvert the mainland, is pushing Hong Kong to enact the anti-subversion legislation, but human rights groups fear it could be used against anyone who criticizes China or its leaders.

Under the proposed law, people found guilty of acts of treason, sedition, secession from, or subversion against the mainland government could be imprisoned for life.

Britain, which ruled the city for more than one and a half centuries, said it would closely follow the debate on the law and monitor how the legislation would be applied.

Hong Kong is required to pass some form of anti-subversion law under its constitution, which was agreed between Britain and China before the territory reverted to Chinese rule.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong said late on Monday the proposed legislation would damage Hong Kong's reputation for free-flowing information and could spark an exodus of journalists and news organizations from the city.

It said it strongly objected to adopting the mainland's broad notions of "national security" and "state secrets" in Hong Kong and to increasing the government's power to restrict information.

In London, the head of Hong Kong's Democratic Party said the new laws would also threaten the territory's status as a global financial center.

Martin Lee, a prominent pro-democracy legislator, told reporters some overseas investors would pull out of Hong Kong if their previous freedoms were eroded.

"The advantages in Hong Kong are the rule of law, freedoms and the availability of economic information, but when these proposed laws are passed, all these will be seriously and adversely affected," he said.

In Hong Kong itself, a group of demonstrators scuffled with police on Tuesday as they tried to get into a security perimeter around Zhu to protest against the planned law. No arrests were made.