CHINA'S planned emasculation of the Bill of Rights is an outrageous act which raises doubts about Hong Kong's promised autonomy after 1997. Theoretically, the decision is far from final. All that has happened so far is a Preliminary Working Committee (PWC) sub-group recommendation that proposes stripping the bill of its most important provisions, a move which will have no legal force until endorsed by a full plenum of the Beijing-appointed think-tank and the yet-to-be-established Preparatory Committee. Finally, it must be promulgated by the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee. However, no one should be under any illusion that these rubber-stamp bodies will raise the slightest objection. Just as the provisional legislature became a fait accompli the moment it was proposed by a PWC sub-group, so China is clearly set on reducing the bill to no more than a piece of wallpaper. The move would have the effect of repealing the sections stipulating no previous or subsequent law can violate the bill, therefore destroying its basic purpose of ensuring all legislation must meet a minimum human rights standard. No threat No threat Quite why Beijing feels the need to do this has not been explained. The bill merely replicates the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and so does little more than flesh out the Basic Law's commitment to the covenant beyond 1997. Nor is it any threat to the Basic Law, which clearly has a higher status as a mini-constitution and would prevail in any conflict between the two. The motive for emasculation can only be political, disguised by the fig-leaf of retaining the hollow shell of the bill so as to seem to be paying lip-service to civil liberties. Yet critics are wrong to suggest this sounds the death-knell for human rights in Hong Kong. Civil liberties cannot simply be legislated into existence. They depend on how vigorously this community will fight to preserve them and uphold all the fine-sounding pledges in the Basic Law after the handover. What Beijing's behaviour does cast into doubt is its long-standing commitment to the concept of 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong'. Bad precedent Bad precedent It would be difficult to object were the Special Administrative Region Government to decide, after 1997, to amend or abolish the bill and persuade an elected legislature to approve the move. What is objectionable is that an unelected and unrepresentative body meeting in Beijing - with only a minority of members from Hong Kong - is unilaterally deciding the internal affairs of the territory. That has grave implications for the 'high degree of autonomy' promised in the Joint Declaration and Basic Law. It will also set an unfortunate precedent for Beijing to meddle in other purely domestic matters. Worse still is the proposal to revive six potentially repressive laws, repealed over the past few years, a move even opposed by some sub-group members. This action almost certainly violates the Basic Law, which only gives the NPC Standing Committee power to invalidate existing laws, not revive old ones. The proposal represents a refusal to recognise that society must change as time moves on and will only embarrass Beijing, whose resumption of sovereignty will now be marked by the reinstatement of outdated colonial laws. PWC members who endorsed these proposals have shown they are out of touch with the aspirations of Hong Kong people and with the evolution of Hong Kong society. It remains to be seen if other fence-sitters follow their lead by failing to speak out. But those who keep quiet will have forfeited the trust of the community.