THE extent of public animosity towards the Beijing-nominated Preliminary Working Committee's negative position on the Bill of Rights seems to have exceeded the calculation of the hawks in the Chinese camp. After a meeting in Beijing last week, the PWC legal sub-group recommended to nullify six laws revised in accordance with the human rights ordinance. The move triggered a rare uniformity in views among the local mainstream news media which condemned the committee. Even sub-group member, unionist Tam Yiu-chung, sought to distance himself from the unpopular proposition. Another PWC member from the pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, Tsang Yok-sing, also denounced as unacceptable the amendments in their original form. Zhang Junsheng, vice-director of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua (the New China News Agency), threw his weight behind the group's position maintaining its decision was both 'reasonable and legal'. Two days later, he back-pedalled adding his remarks only referred to the sub-group's proceedings, rather than the content of its recommendation. In a session with the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood on Tuesday, Mr Zhang pledged to arrange for the sub-group members to explain their case in Hong Kong. Three mainland legal experts on the panel will arrive today. In a friendly gesture, he even broke a Xinhua tradition of secrecy by allowing a photo call for the media before their closed-door meeting. Despite this development, it would be presumptuous to assume China has second thoughts on the issue. What Mr Zhang yielded was only that the PWC's views have yet to be endorsed by the Preparatory Committee for the Special Administrative Region (SAR), due to be set up next January. He also said revisions to the existing Hong Kong laws would have to be enacted by the post-1997 legislature, rather than the National People's Congress. However, Mr Zhang insisted there was a practical need to change the laws. Scuppering the PWC proposal does not appear to be on the cards. In fact, Xinhua is rumoured to have been instrumental in pushing through the contentious proposal in the legal sub-group. Xinhua officials are said to have convinced the Hong Kong lawyers on the panel to take a hard line against what they cautioned as the British plot to undermine the future SAR government's authority in the name of advancing civil rights. Ta Kung Pao, a Chinese mouthpiece, has continued to lash out at the Bill of Rights. It published a lengthy article by Lee Wai-ting, an assistant to the director of the agency who sits on the committee, two days ago. He argued it was the Governor, Chris Patten, who was trying to undermine the legal foundations of the territory. Mr Lee is described by insiders as having played an active role in keeping some Hong Kong members in line. Such hearsay is difficult to confirm. However, word has it that Xinhua has pursued a more leftist line compared with the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Xinhua's rigid stance is viewed as crucial in its struggle for power in Hong Kong. The 15-strong sub-group is co-convened by Shao Tianren from the mainland and a former Hong Kong High Court judge, Simon Li Fook-sean. Other Hong Kong legal professionals on the panel are Lo Tak-shing, Maria Tam Wai-chu, Ambrose Lau Hon-chuen and Arthur Garcia. They are joined by eight other mainland officials. It was Mr Lo who first briefed reporters about the sub-group's collective decision to void some of the human rights provisions. The last time he was caught at the centre of a political storm was in late 1989, after the military crackdown on the students' pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. A vice director of the now disbanded Basic Law Consultative Committee, Mr Lo then suggested that a bicameral system be instituted for the post-1997 lawmaking body for additional constraints on the people's representatives in the lower house. Mr Lau, on the other hand, has emerged as the key defender of the sub-group's position on the Bill of Rights. The pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po recently carried an interview with him where he spoke of the need to restore aspects of ordinances affected by the implementation of the Bill of Rights. He noted that even the British Government had been eager to retain its emergency powers against the Irish Republican Army. He used the case to illustrate why it was vital for Hong Kong authorities to be given back the powers taken away from them in the latest revision to the Emergency Regulations Ordinance. The last time Beijing appointees provoked such widespread local discontent was in late 1988, when publisher Louis Cha, a co-convenor of the political sub-group of the Basic Law Drafting Committee, floated his personal blueprint on how Hong Kong should proceed with its democratisation plan beyond 1997. Under the Cha option, Hong Kong people would need to wait until at least 2041 before they had the right to return all legislators through geographical direct elections. The package was even more conservative than the one forwarded by the so-called Group of 89, ridiculed by liberal activists as a major hurdle to democracy. China's ultimate timetable for democratisation for Hong Kong turned out to be a disappointment for many, although it represents an improvement on the Cha formula. The Basic Law now provides for a fully, democratically elected legislative assembly by 2007, pending the approval by two-thirds of the legislators and the chief executive. However, unlike the Cha blueprint for reform, there is virtually no ground for compromise on the Bill of Rights controversy. China will either have to accept the amendments stemming from the ordinance or negate them one way or another. So far, there is no convincing sign China will bow to public pressure.