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For China, flag burning is national security issue

By JEFFREY K. PARKER

BEIJING -- Members of China's rubber-stamp Parliament will discuss a proposed ban on desecration of the national flag this week and are likely to enact the law with little of the political fury exhibited in the United States, a spokesman said Monday.

In the United States, deep philosophical and constitutional uncertainty over a ban on flag desecration has forced advocates of a ban to propose amending the U.S. Constitution. China's National Flag Law faces no constitutional hurdles.

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'I can say one thing for sure, the Chinese Constitution will need no amending with the propagation of the law on the national flag,' said Zhang Husheng, a spokesman for the National People's Congress, China's nominal legislature.

The proposed flag law is scheduled for discussion Wednesday by the standing committee of the National People's Congress, whose approval of proposed laws is virtually automatic.

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'Under the coming law, all those people who are involved in acts of burning, tarnishing, treading on and other acts of harming the national flag will be dealt with according to law,' Zhang said at a news conference.

'Even with those who have committed only minor offenses, certain punishment will be made according to the rules and regulations concerning maintenance of national security,' he said.

China's constitution nominally guarantees the right to free speech, but laws banning 'counterrevolutionary' activities are commonly used to detain and silence government critics as well as those who desecrate national symbols.

Three men convicted of splattering black paint on the giant portrait of Mao Tse-tung in Tiananmen Square during last year's democracy movement were sentenced to long prison terms.

The flag law has been under consideration for years and its introduction this week is unrelated to the nationwide movement for greater freedom that was brutally suppressed by the army last June, Zhang said.

There were no reported instances of flag desecration during the demonstrations, whose student leaders swore their patriotism and proudly waved the five-starred, revolutionary-red national flag as a symbol of their movement.

The Chinese move to ban flag desecration has not prompted the kind of national debate that the issue has stirred in the United States, where the Supreme Court has ruled that flag burning is an expression of free speech and protected by the U.S. Constitution.

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Zhang said the flag desecration law already has passed muster at all levels of the Communist government.

The draft law not only would ban desecration of the Chinese flag but would make it illegal to insult the flag, with penalties ranging up to 3 years in prison and loss of political rights, he said.

Zhang said the draft law would allow 15 days of administrative detention for minor instances of flag desecration and a maximum of 3 years in prison for serious cases, which he said could include various forms of insulting the Chinese flag.

The proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution introduced in Congress last week would not even go so far as to ban desecration of the Stars and Stripes, but merely would assign the right to enact a ban, reading, 'The Congress and states shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.'

The election-year move to amend the U.S. Constitution has inspired furious debate among politicians, legal scholars, war veterans and demonstrators who have publicly burned the U.S. flag. The amendment is supported by President Bush and gained new momentum last week after the Supreme Court struck down an anti-desecration law passed by Congress in 1989.

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Amending the U.S. Constitution is a arduous procedure, and support of a proposed amendment by at least two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress is only the first step. Proposed amendments then must win support of the legislatures of at least three-fourths of the 50 states.

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