BEIJING'S introduction of legislation regulating the use of martial law is a small step towards building a more modern legal framework on the mainland. It will, for the first time, provide detailed criteria for the declaration and imposition of a state of emergency. The powers it grants are Draconian. In future, not only will the State Council have the authority to declare martial law. The Central Military Commission, dominated by President Jiang Zemin and his allies, can also dispatch troops on its own initiative. Even provincial and municipal governments will, in some circumstances, be empowered to take similar measures. Yet this is still far preferable to the legal vacuum which exists at present. This does nothing to prevent the Chinese leadership declaring a state of emergency, whenever it suits its purpose, but means there are no guidelines to which they are even supposed to adhere. More than six years after martial law was imposed on parts of Beijing during the 1989 pro-democracy protests, it is unclear whether the declaration was in breach of the Chinese constitution. This appears only to allow the National People's Congress Standing Committee to make such a declaration. The new law should clarify such uncertainty. If its terms are obeyed, it should afford at least some protection against any abuse of power. But, even if the law is breached, it provides clearer criteria by which people inside and outside China can judge any actions of the Chinese leadership. Inevitably there will be concerns it might be imposed on Hong Kong. There is no reason to suppose this will be so. The Basic Law already covers the imposition of a state of emergency and, under the 'one country, two systems' concept, such national laws should not apply to Hong Kong. Yet it would do Beijing no harm to reaffirm this and so lay to rest unnecessary fears about what is, in most other respects, a positive and encouraging development.