Hong Kong journalists fear Beijing China will restrict freedom, many say


HONG KONG -- More than three years before this city reverts to Chinese rule, Beijing is sending shivers down the spine of the British colony's normally vibrant press.

Fear and self-censorship are spreading in what some predict is just a taste of the threats to press freedoms and other liberties after China's takeover in 1997.

"Journalists here are feeling very scared," says Emily Lau, an elected member of the city's legislature, democracy activist and former journalist. "There's a deep anxiety in the profession."

The newly heightened concerns reflect broad worries here these days about the worth of China's promise that Hong Kong can maintain its relatively strong civil liberties for the first 50 years of Chinese rule under a "one country, two systems" formula.

Whether China completely lives up to this promise of a high degree of political autonomy for Hong Kong may hinge on the outcome of a bitter Sino-British row over the colony's 1995 legislative elections, its last vote under British rule.

In his first policy address a year ago, colonial Gov. Chris Patten provoked the dispute by proposing to expand the degree of democracy in those elections. China vowed to scrap any legislature elected under his plan, and more than 100 hours of talks between the two sides since then have led nowhere.

In his second annual policy speech today, Governor Patten may signal a readiness to forge ahead without China's assent. At the same time, he also may disclose concessions offered by Britain in its secret talks with China.

Both moves would likely anger China, thereby casting an even darker shadow across what already is likely to be a very rocky transition to Chinese rule.

Many journalists say they already feel under siege from Beijing. They cite the following recent incidents:

* In August, China sentenced to life in prison a Beijing editor for leaking to a Hong Kong reporter an advance copy of a public speech by Communist Party boss Jiang Zemin. The Hong Kong reporter was detained for a week last year in Beijing.

* Last month, the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's top English-language newspaper and the voice of the British establishment, published a front-page apology to China for a false story about a Chinese bank scandal. The paper also donated $320,000 to charity and its Sunday editor resigned.

* Around the same time, the Post's owner, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, announced he is selling control to a Malaysian billionaire, Robert Kuok, who is cozy with Beijing. Many expect the paper to become pro-China, though Mr. Kuok denies it. Mr. Kuok also owns a third of Hong Kong's leading TV network.

* Last week, a second Hong Kong reporter was arrested and charged under China's vague state secrets law with stealing banking secrets. His editors have not yet been able to contact him or even find out why specifically he is being held.

"The future is not very bright for press freedom in Hong Kong," says one of the colony's leading democracy advocates, Martin Lee, another elected legislator. "This is a comprehensive campaign by the Communists. They want to control everything -- TV stations, radio stations, newspapers."

China told its banks in the colony earlier this year not to buy ads in about 10 newspapers that are not pro-Beijing, Mr. Lee says. "It's got a lot of publishers looking over their shoulders, concerned they'll be forced out of business."

Chinese officials here are also taking local reporters aside to let them know they're being watched, Ms. Lau says. "The message to them is: 'You know what you should do.' "

Particularly unnerving has been the arrest last week in Beijing of Xi Yang, a Chinese citizen who worked as a reporter for an independent Chinese-language paper, Ming Bao. Many local journalists believe his is a case in which China is equating normal journalistic probing with spying.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wu Jianmin, said last week that Hong Kong's press has nothing to fear "so long as journalistic activities conducted in China are bound legally within the framework of law."

Shiu Sin Por, head of a pro-Beijing think tank here, adds: "Talk of threats to press freedom here is a lot of hot air. Hong Kong has the most liberal operating environment for the press in Asia, and it will be the same after 1997."

Mr. Shiu does not deny that China is trying to gain influence over Hong Kong's media. But he simply dismisses it as part of the larger transition from British to Chinese rule.

"People didn't complain under the old masters," he says. "Now the bosses are changing, and they're crying for a dying era."

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