The controversy over the recommendations by the Preparatory Committee legal sub-group to repeal the Bill of Rights and bring back defunct colonial laws is a prime example of the vastly different interpretation put upon the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law by the British and Chinese governments. For the sake of freedoms in the territory, the decision is a retrograde step, but it can have surprised nobody - China has made its position clear ever since the Bill of Rights was brought forward. Nor can anybody ignore the concerns which the decision arouses about the future freedoms in the territory, and the balance of law-making power between Hong Kong and Beijing after July 1. The Basic Law states that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) shall be implemented through the laws of the Special Administrative Region (SAR). To ensure that the laws were consistent with the ICCPR, the Government enacted the Bill of Rights and repealed colonial ordinances which, although no longer used, had not been formally removed. Beijing's attitude was understood to be that it was prepared to accept the ICCPR after having been told by Britain that it was already adopted into the Hong Kong system and needed no further amendment. Then, in 1990, China was informed that the Bill of Rights was necessary to bring Hong Kong laws into accordance with the ICCPR. Whether or not this was the source of the present chaos, both sides must share the blame for the confusion: Britain for so belatedly amending laws to bring them into line with the ICCPR, and China for agreeing to the covenant but reviving ordinances which are in direct contravention of it. One of the strengths of the current legal system here is the clarity of the law-making process, and the principles of the law. This will no longer be the case if these proposals go through. Common Law vital Hong Kong's legal framework will become more confused; it may even be difficult to establish precisely what is the law. Aside from concerns about individual and group freedoms, this confusion must not be allowed to affect the common law in the territory. It is vitally important that Hong Kong remains part of the common law, and this means recognising that the most recent laws take precedence over laws drafted earlier. Reviving outdated laws which lay unused on the statute book overturns this principle. Hong Kong's prosperity and vitality comes not simply from its own people in isolation, but through its reputation as one of the world's great international cities - a stable and self-confident, sophisticated society in which East and West meet, and the best of both systems merge. The common law plays a major role in this, not just for individuals but also for companies and commercial life. Hence the importance, for instance, of the Court of Final Appeal. Product of acrimony In recent months hopes had been growing in some quarters that Beijing might be rethinking its threat to dismantle the Bill of Rights and to reinstate the old ordinances. Such hopes were probably always illusory, if only for one reason which hangs over the last months of British rule. The acrimony between the Hong Kong Government and Beijing since the political changes announced in 1992 virtually ensured that a matter like the future of the Bill of Rights would become an issue whose fate would be decided as much by international politics as by the rights and wrongs of the case. Perhaps the Chief Executive-designate, Tung Chee-hwa, can step in to limit the damage. The best outcome would be to convince Beijing, the Preparatory Committee and the Provisional Legislature that the Bill of Rights is entirely consistent with the ICCPR, unlike the old laws which they plan to restore. If that cannot be achieved, serious thought should be given to the implications of Article 39 of the Basic Law which states that the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights will be implemented through the laws of the SAR after July 1. The Bill of Rights was tabled in response to a UN requirement that Hong Kong statutes were brought into line with the ICCPR. To do that, the old draconian laws had to be repealed. From July 1, the covenant will form part of Hong Kong's constitution, and the aim must be to work out ways in which it can be an effective factor in the territory's future.