BEIJING - This week marked one of the worst for press freedom and democratic development in Hong Kong since China took over the former British colony nearly three years ago.
At a meeting of the Hong Kong Federation of Journalists on Wednesday, a high-ranking Chinese official stunned members by saying they should censor stories related to the politically sensitive issue of Taiwanese independence.
A day earlier, one of the local legislature's brightest stars, Christine Loh, announced she would not seek another term because Beijing's hand-picked, chief executive refuses to expand political participation.
Though technically unrelated, the two events left the impression that China's novel policy for administrating Hong Kong, known as 'one-country, two systems,' is fraying. The policy refers to Beijing's pledge to allow the freewheeling territory to maintain its capitalist economy, social system and independent press for five decades.
'I think it's quite incredible,' said Mak Yin-ting, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, referring to the censorship directive from Beijing. 'Do they think Hong Kong is just any part of China?'
The attempt to curb the press not only infuriated journalists and politicians in Hong Kong, but also resonated in Taiwan.
China views the island as a wayward province and has tried to lure it back by suggesting a looser, 'one country, two systems' formula. Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, has rejected the idea of subordinating itself to authoritarian Beijing as utterly inappropriate. The events in Hong Kong this week only served to harden that position.
The threat of media censorship 'is simply the latest move in the long-predicted leveling of any distinctive features of Hong Kong's society,' said yesterday's editorial in the English-language Taipei Times. 'What can one expect when one is part of China? This is precisely why it is nonsense to expect anyone to subscribe voluntarily to the 'one country, two systems' formula.'
Wednesday's threat against the press was triggered last weekend when a Hong Kong television station aired an interview with Taiwan's vice president-elect, Annette Lu. Lu, an outspoken, former political prisoner, said the island should be only a 'remote relative and close neighbor' of China.
Taiwan has ruled itself since the late 1940s when Nationalist General Chiang Kai-shek fled there in defeat at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Beijing, which has threatened to attack Taiwan if the island every formally declares independence, saw Lu's comments as advocating separatism and erupted in anger.
Most Mainland Chinese believe passionately that Taiwan is a part of China. In typically fiery rhetoric, state-run Chinese newspapers called Lu, 'the scum of the nation.'
Several days later, Wang Fengchao, Beijing's number two man in Hong Kong, told journalists to avoid such stories.
'Hong Kong's media has the responsibility to uphold the integrity and sovereignty of the country,' Wang said. 'This has nothing to do with press freedom.'
Wang also suggested that Hong Kong enact subversion and sedition laws to rein in the media.
While not responding directly to Wang's statements, acting Hong Kong Chief Executive Anson Chan said that the Basic Law, which governs the territory, guarantees freedom of speech and the press.
Journalists predicted Wang's comments would make some news outlets pause before reporting statements supporting Taiwanese sovereignty. But observers also said that if the media bowed to pressure now, Beijing would expand its news ban to include other sensitive topics such as Tibetan independence, political dissidents and the spiritual meditation group, Falun Gong.
'This is what terrifies the journalists here,' said Joseph Man Chan, a professor in the school of journalism and communications at Chinese University of Hong Kong. 'If China can get its way on the Taiwan issue, it will spread to other issues.'
If Wang's words on Wednesday were a blow to the media, Christine Loh's announcement that she would leave the territory's Legislative Council was a black eye for Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.
Loh, a thoughtful environmentalist, has called for greater democracy in Hong Kong, where the electoral system is essentially rigged to prevent democrats like her from gaining a majority. Loh said she thought she could be more effective outside government.
Tung, a shipping magnate who was indirectly appointed by Beijing, has claimed - against all evidence -- that Hong Kong is actually more democratic than Taiwan. Yet, he has no popular mandate and has shown little interest in developing Hong Kong's fledgling democracy.
'His authority comes from Beijing,' said legislator Margaret Ng, who added that Tung largely views the legislative counsel as a nuisance. 'It's really difficult for you to do anything if the executive chooses to ignore you.'
In the weeks before Hong Kong's handover to China in 1997, some predicted the mainland would quickly clamp down on freedom in the former colony. Instead, Beijing has won generally favorable reviews for keeping its hands off Hong Kong's internal affairs. The territory of more than 6 million continues to be an efficient place to do business and Hong Kong's press remains largely free.
Fear of sudden change in 1997, however, has given way to concerns that valued aspects of Hong Kong society may erode over time. Reports of press self-censorship, for instance, are not uncommon.
The local media spent little time on the story of a Taiwanese journalist detained in 1998 in Xinjiang, China's far Western province and home to an ethnic, separatist movement. Last year, a television station cut back a six-part series on Tibet to just one episode, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association 1999 Annual Report.
Even if the mainland were to succeed in intimidating the Hong Kong press, it already appears to be losing the battle to control the flow of information within its own borders.
Last month, when opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian won the presidency in Taiwan, the mainland press reported little. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party had long advocated Taiwanese independence and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji had warned people not to vote for him.
Despite the near news blackout, though, some people in South China watched the festivities live on Taiwanese TV stations they picked up on satellite dishes, most of which are illegal. In Beijing, young Chinese logged onto the web pages of Taiwanese newspapers to read how the once-banned opposition party toppled the Nationalists after more than five decades in power.
Given the global information revolution, many in Hong Kong and elsewhere believe time and technology are running against the Communist Party.
'These people seem to out of touch with reality in Hong Kong and with the Internet Age,' said Joseph Chan, referring to the leaders in Beijing.