Hong Kong Law Society 'edits out' criticism of Beijing in constitution report

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The Law Society in the Chinese-controlled city of Hong Kong edited out criticism of Beijing in its report to the government on constitutional reform, one member said on Tuesday, adding that he was "embarrassed" by its silence.

The report was submitted as part of a public consultation on how Hong Kong's leader should be elected in 2017 and comes after months of street protests during which police used tear gas and batons to subdue student-led pro-democracy activists.

Mark Daly, a member of the committee drafting the report, said the society was becoming more and more like mainland China,"remaining silent on human rights issues and rule-of-law issues".

"We should be speaking out more and educating the public more ... and it's embarrassing that the Law Society isn't," he said.

The former British colony returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives it a separate legal system and greater freedoms than the Communist Party-ruled mainland - and the promise of universal suffrage.

Beijing says it will allow a free vote in 2017, but only between pre-screened candidates.

Last week marked the end of a public consultation process during which a number of groups, including the 8,000-strong Law Society, offered opinions to the Hong Kong government on its proposal for electoral reform, which closely mirrors a decision published by China's National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in August.

An early draft of the Law Society report concluded that it was "disappointed by the (NPC) decision, as it is regressive", Daly said. The NPC decision was "contrary to the Law Society's prior proposals", Daly said, reading from the original report.

But the final report stresses the society's support for the NPC Standing Committee decision. It also confirms that the committee has "general and free-standing power" to interpret Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

The Law Society did not respond for a request for comment.

The South China Morning Post was first to report the discrepancy.

The report "was quite clearly trying to steer clear of any sort of political minefield", said John Gale, managing partner at J.S. Gale & Co, who has worked in Hong Kong for more than 30 years.

Hong Kong lawyers took historic steps last summer by dressing in black and marching against what they saw as Chinese interference in Hong Kong. They also passed a vote of no confidence in president Ambrose Lam after he made a series of pro-Beijing comments.

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