South China Morning Post: Freedoms in the spotlight and the world is watching


AS THE WORLD tunes in to Hong Kong for an update on its progress five years after being handed back to Chinese rule, three recent events cast a shadow over the city's autonomy.

There have been indications that July 1, 2002, could prove to be a turning point in Hong Kong's development - with fears being raised of a further deterioration in freedoms during the second five years of Chinese sovereignty.

While foreign media scrutiny of Hong Kong has dwindled since the 1997 handover, perhaps lulling the Government into sensing that the world is no longer watching so closely, there has been a sharp rise in interest in recent days.

The BBC, CNN and international newspapers have all been carrying extensive updates on the Special Administrative Region's progress in recent days.

The first of a trio of blows came last weekend when US-based human rights activist Harry Wu Hongda revealed that he was denied permission to enter Hong Kong for the second time in two months.

The dissident's application for entry was refused by the Immigration Department with no reason provided. His previous unsuccessful attempt to enter was in April when he was turned away at Chek Lap Kok, again with no explanation except that it was for security reasons.

His treatment has aroused concern in the US Congress and the State Department issued a warning about limits on freedom of speech and association in the SAR. [….]

On Wednesday, China scholar Professor Perry Link, an editor of The Tiananmen Papers banned by Beijing, said he had been detained and questioned for more than 40 minutes by immigration officers at the airport.

The Princeton University academic, who has been barred from entering the mainland since 1996, said he had never before encountered any difficulties entering Hong Kong and had previously visited in March last year.

Professor Link told the Sunday Morning Post the grilling he received from immigration officers adversely affected the positive way he had previously viewed Hong Kong's existence under the "one country, two systems" formula. "What happened to me that day has broken the seal [separating] Hong Kong and Beijing," he said.

Mr Wu and Professor Link were both coming to speak at a Foreign Correspondents' Club series of events on the impact of Chinese sovereignty on freedom.

Also refused entry, over the past nine days, have been more than 30 members of the Falun Gong - outlawed on the mainland but tolerated in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Government has repeatedly stated that it makes decisions on who is allowed to enter in accordance with immigration law and procedures. Some observers argue the current hard-line approach arises from the sensitive atmosphere surrounding the handover anniversary, with President Jiang Zemin and other senior leaders due to attend.

While Beijing has generally been praised for not overtly interfering in Hong Kong since 1997, fears have been raised that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's introduction of a ministerial system could further stifle freedoms.

Cheung Man-yee, former director of broadcasting at government-funded broadcaster RTHK, has expressed concern the traditionally independent radio and television station will face heightened pressure to act as a government mouthpiece under a ministerial system.

Adding to concerns were comments made by Mr Qian last week, which sparked a debate on the SAR's political development.

Democracy supporters worry they are a sign Beijing is seeking to curtail promises that would eventually allow Hong Kong people to directly elect their chief executive and legislature. They claim Mr Qian has contradicted the requirements of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution which came into force at the handover. [….]

Paul Harris, barrister and founding chairman of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, said: "Mr Qian has a habit of interfering in Hong Kong's domestic affairs in breach of the spirit of `one country, two systems', and his behaviour is becoming increasingly outrageous."

He said there was only one way to interpret Mr Qian's remarks on democracy. "Remarks made by Qian are never just his personal feelings. It is normal for communist officials, before giving the party line, to preface their comments with a phrase saying it is their personal view. It is not a personal view; it is an expression of the view of the central people's Government," he said.

Mr Harris said he was worried the recent controversies might mark a turning point in terms of the dilution of Hong Kong's autonomy. "When I talk of autonomy, it is not so much that there will be direct orders from the central people's Government," he said. "But I fear the new Tung administration will more and more try to anticipate what it thinks Beijing wants and it will make for a reduction in Hong Kong's freedoms." […]

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