Hong Kong clings to its freedoms

Tuesday, June 4, 2002

HONG KONG -- As they do every Sunday, people thronged the open-air markets full of squirming fish and dried shark's fins, and the air-conditioned department stores offering the latest from Gucci and Ralph Lauren.

Few paid attention to the 1,500 people gathered in a park named for Queen Victoria to sing songs of freedom and shout slogans about the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

"Stop the one-party dictatorship," they chanted. "Build a democratic China."

It seemed to show that five years after Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, its freedom to speak out and even to criticize its masters in Beijing is thriving despite the many predictions that they would wither.

On July 1, 1997, after 156 years of colonial rule, the Union Jack came down, the red Chinese flag went up, and Hong Kong's 6 million people came under a political arrangement called "one country, two systems" -- a part of China but keeping their capitalist system, with their own legal code and civil liberties.

But even though nothing sensational has happened in the past five years, many remain fearful that their rights are tenuous.

Most analysts say the transition has been relatively glitch-free, with freedoms of speech, assembly and religion intact. The bright lights still shine and the judges still wear the wigs they inherited from British times. Hong Kong is free to wheel and deal as it always has, though the high-octane capitalism that once ruled here has been sputtering, still feeling the aftereffects of Asia's 1997 financial crisis.

Beijing is honoring "both the letter and the spirit" of its commitments, said Stephen Lam, spokesman for Hong Kong's leader, Tung Chee-hwa.

But many fear that Hong Kong's government is overeager to keep Beijing happy, and that Tung is Beijing's puppet.

"The fact that we can have these demonstrations shows we are still slightly different from China," opposition lawmaker Emily Lau said at the Victoria Park rally. "But the differences are going to be less and less."

Dampening the dissent

Critics say Hong Kong's government is trying to dampen the dissent, typically by subtle methods that focus on something other than the message.

As the protesters in Victoria Park began marching toward Hong Kong government offices, police warned that two men riding in the back of a pickup truck to operate a loudspeaker system were in violation of the transportation laws and might be prosecuted.

The Falun Gong meditation movement, outlawed as an "evil cult" in mainland China, is free to practice here. But one of its favorite protest spots outside the Chinese government liaison office suddenly has become unavailable because authorities put in a flower bed.

Two unprecedented criminal cases are pending -- one against three pro-democracy campaigners accused of staging an unauthorized protest, another against 16 followers of Falun Gong, including four Swiss, charged with obstruction for demonstrating outside the Chinese office.

"The five-year honeymoon has ended," said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, a nongovernmental organization.

"The worst scenario didn't happen, but we can't go boasting too much," Law said. "If you're beaten up and not murdered, you don't have anything important to celebrate."

Hong Kong people have mixed views about their return to the motherland.

"It's better to be ruled by Chinese," said Julia Lau, a 39-year-old insurance agent. "Now, we've living under the protective shield of the mainland government."

Philip Chan, who works at a university, wasn't so optimistic.

"The government has been making a mess since the handover," said Chan.

Tung remains highly unpopular, seen not only as beholden to Beijing but also as favoring the wealthy over ordinary Hong Kong citizens at a time when Hong Kong is suffering from record 7.1 percent unemployment.

The former shipping tycoon won re-election as chief executive in February without challenge under an unusual arrangement that gives votes to just 800 people -- mostly representatives of special interest groups.

Debate over democracy

Hong Kong can theoretically achieve full democracy by 2007 but critics say the government is dragging its feet about even starting to debate the idea. Spokesman Lam said it would happen "in good time."

Activist Rose Wu said Hong Kong is "moving backward to become more like China -- anti-democracy, anti-human rights, anti-freedom of expression."

Nonsense, Lam said. He called speech and press rights, as well as Hong Kong's independent judiciary, "the freedoms and transparencies which make Hong Kong click."

Ma Lik, secretary-general of Hong Kong's biggest pro-Beijing political party and a deputy to the Chinese National People's Congress, said officials are right to prosecute Falun Gong followers for obstruction because the government must preserve order.

"I think the foreign press should talk to the ordinary people in Hong Kong and not the Falun Gong or the protesters," Ma said.

"The ordinary people want the government to do something. You should talk to the lift operator in your mansion. What the ordinary people treasure is order."

Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says a sedition law must be enacted, and Ma and other pro-Beijing figures want it to happen soon. Pro-democracy forces fear it will mean anyone who goes against the government could be persecuted.

The Hong Kong government, apparently aware of the sensitivities of a sedition law, has shown no inclination to move quickly.

Immigration ills

To many, the most troubling development is not about civil liberties, but immigration.

Although Hong Kong is now formally part of China, its worst nightmare is an influx of mainland Chinese flooding the crowded city state, and to prevent that happening, immigration is strictly controlled.

Thus, when Hong Kong's highest court exercised its independence and ruled against the government in an immigration case in 1999, Hong Kong got Beijing to effectively overturn the judgment. The message, say critics, was that the Court of Final Appeal, supposedly the last line of defense for Hong Kong's way of life, was really the "Court of Semi-Final Appeal."

Fear of immigration is compounded by the high unemployment rate, a legacy of the Asian financial crisis that dragged Hong Kong into a 15-month recession.

Hong Kong's economy recovered, barely. But it is now slipping again and many believe another recession has come. The stock exchange rarely shows the buzz that used to throw it into wild gyrations.

During the last day of trading under British rule, the blue chip Hang Seng Index closed at a record 15,196.79 points. For most of the past year it has languished below 12,000.

Far from introducing communist ways into Hong Kong, Chinese rule has left ordinary people feeling that the deck is stacked, as it was in colonial times, in favor of tycoons like Li Ka-shing. He's the richest man in town, owning everything from apartment blocks, office buildings and ports to grocery and electronics stores -- and some here say it's hard to do anything but breathe without making him richer.

Nation reinventing itself

But Hong Kong is trying to reinvent itself, spending billions to lure a Disneyland theme park now under construction and putting up a high-tech development -- Cyberport -- which raised eyebrows when the deal was awarded to one of Li's sons, Richard Li, without any bidding.

Gleaming Chek Lap Kok international airport is one of the world's best, but gone is the thrill of flying in at rooftop level with a sharp last-minute turn that made the old inner-city airport famous.

One constant: Hong Kong keeps building.

Most people are packed into huge apartment towers, many seeming to defy gravity on the territory's steep mountainsides. And although a property market collapse left thousands living in tiny apartments worth far less than they owe the bank, skyscrapers are going up everywhere.

While British soldiers used to go on legendary drinking binges, the troops of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, or PLA, stay discreetly inside their barracks, in what used to be called the Prince of Wales building.

Before the handover, many had worried PLA would roll in and start bossing the locals around -- fears that proved groundless.

"The post boxes are a different color," said Margaret Wilson, the wife of a British airline pilot who has lived here for 14 years.

"They've changed the names of some of the buildings, but it took a long time. All the worries -- the street signs were going to change -- nothing like that happened. Concerns about the PLA -- you never see them."

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