Former secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie yesterday warned of anarchy if referendums were held at will in Hong Kong, and said the government could consider a law change to restrict Legco by-elections. Her comments were the strongest from the Beijing loyalist camp since five pan-democrats announced they would quit the Legislative Council to trigger by-elections they will contest and which they are calling a de facto referendum on democratisation. A fellow Beijing loyalist attacked the pan-democrats' use of a by- election campaign slogan calling for an 'uprising' against an unjust political system. Maria Tam Wai-chu said an uprising was generally taken to mean toppling a government through violence. Leung, deputy chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee, told a seminar on constitutional reform the government was duty-bound to hold by-elections when vacancies arose in the Legislative Council, but that they could not be seen as a referendum. The committee advises the nation's highest legislative body, the National People's Congress Standing Committee, on interpretation and amendment of the Basic Law. Leung said: 'If some lawmakers often resign offhandedly, how can the government operate? It is not powerless. The government or Legco can amend the law to decide under what circumstances [a person can run] in a by-election.' Hong Kong could reach a stage of anarchy if referendums, of which the Basic Law made no mention, could be carried out at will, she said. 'Is a referendum as simple as that? There should be 1.3 billion people voting, rather than 7 million deciding major national affairs.' Independent lawmaker Pricilla Leung Mei-fun plans to table a private member's bill in Legco to amend the electoral law to restrict the right of lawmakers to stand in by-elections if they quit Legco for reasons other than poor health. She said her amendment would also seek to bar lawmakers who resign from standing for Legco for a year. But another Basic Law Committee member, University of Hong Kong Law professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, said changes to electoral law needed approaching with caution, since they would have an impact on human rights. 'The government must take the overseas experience as a reference if it considers amending the law. If nowhere in the world has such a mechanism, then we have to be careful in handling this,' Chen said. Five lawmakers from the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats are to resign next week. The two parties say the results of the ensuing by-elections - one in each of the five geographical constituencies - should be seen as a de facto referendum on the public's desire for genuine universal suffrage and the scrapping of Legco's functional constituencies. Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, leader of the Civic Party, voiced surprise at Leung's remarks. She said they went against the spirit of rule of law, which Hongkongers treasured. 'The right for people to stand in elections is guaranteed under the Basic Law,' Eu said, and politicians overseas had often resigned their seats to fight by-elections in a show of no confidence in the powers that be. She said the five who were resigning did not seek independence for Hong Kong, but wanted to 'give power to the people' to voice their democratic aspirations. Wong Yuk-man, chairman of the league and one of those who will quit Legco next week, said that the harsher the words Beijing and its supporters used to try to dissuade the public from taking part in the de facto referendum, 'the more [they] will anger the public and hence the more support for us.' The central government issued statements eight days ago through the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and its liaison office in Hong Kong condemning 'so-called referendums' as a blatant challenge to the Basic Law and its own authority. Since then Beijing loyalists appear to have changed their tune on the pan-democrats' plan - either attacking it more stridently or showing less eagerness to contest the by-elections. Tam, also a Basic Law Committee member, said the five lawmakers should scrap their plans to resign. Of the 'uprising' slogan they have adopted, she said: 'Using this term is really a tragedy. Uprising generally means people wishing to topple a government through violent means. We have a government and a legislature which will deal with this matter.' Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which had earlier said it would field candidates in any by-elections, said: 'At this moment, our party has yet to make a final decision [on this].' Asked whether the party was shying away to avoid risking Beijing's wrath, he said: 'The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office statement has clearly expressed Beijing's rationale.' Chan Wing-kee, a member of the standing committee of the Chinese People Political Consultative Conference, urged Beijing loyalists not to take part in the by-elections. 'Why should we pitch ourselves against the central government?' he said. A spokeswoman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau would not say whether the government had plans to amend the law to restrict the right to run in by-elections. 'The government will act in accordance with the law,' she said. The government says it will treat any by-elections as regular electoral arrangements rather than a referendum.