"The Legal Controversy: Nothing Could Be Worse"

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Though hordes of illegitimate children are yet to come streaming over Hong Kong's border, another nightmarish vision has quickly materialized. Little more than a week after the Court of Final Appeal's landmark right of abode ruling, four mainland Chinese academics involved in drafting Hong Kong's constitution accused the judges of overstepping their legal bounds. A Beijing spokesman quickly endorsed their position and demanded that the ruling be changed. With that, Hong Kong now faces one of its most anxious moments since the handover, and perhaps the greatest challenge yet to the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law. As Democratic Party leader Martin Lee puts it: Nothing could be worse than what's developing.At stake, depending on one's perspective, is either the principle of judicial independence or the authority of the central government. In a non-binding sentence included in its ruling, the CFA asserted its right to determine whether an act of the National People's Congress or its Standing Committee is inconsistent with the Basic Law. The quartet of mainland legal experts claims that only the NPC--China's legislature--can make such an evaluation. Hong Kong's defenders, and the court, say that is absolutely true only in matters of defense and foreign affairs. In cases that concern the rights of people in Hong Kong--and which are not the responsibility of the central government--the CFA says that its authority is confirmed by Article 19 of the Basic Law: The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be vested with independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. The conflict can be cast in epic terms--Hong Kong's well-established rule of law versus the more slippery rule of man that holds sway on the mainland. But its roots may also lie in more petty considerations. In reporting the comments of the four Chinese academics, the state-run Xinhua News Agency also noted the view of unnamed experts that the ruling was in direct opposition to the interest of Hong Kong residents and has hindered efforts to maintain stability and prosperity. Even if the academics did not have such material considerations in mind, their argument dealt in part with legal quibbles: the Chinese-language version of the Basic Law, they noted, includes an etc. after defense and foreign affairs, which they argued expanded the central government's purview to cover immigration. Nobody's trying to declare independence, says Hong Kong legislator Emily Lau. But that doesn't mean the issues involved are minor. Notes Lau: Whenever Beijing shouts, Hong Kong people tremble.If Beijing officials believed they were doing the territory a favor, they were soon disabused of that notion. Political analysts and business leaders alike were quick to warn that any impression of interference in Hong Kong's Western-style legal system would damage the city's appeal as a financial center. Washington and London, meanwhile, each voiced support for the independence of the courts. The message seems to be sinking in. Late last week, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry reaffirmed Beijing's commitment to the one country, two systems formula that is meant to guarantee Hong Kong's wide-ranging autonomy (although she pointedly warned that the matter was an internal affair of China's). And Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa dispatched Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie to Beijing to discuss the ruling with central authorities. Cooler heads may actually prevail--which would set a fine precedent for everyone trying to deal with the CFA's controversial ruling.By Nisid Hajari. Reported by Hilary Roxe/Hong Kong