HONG KONG: Just a week before Hong Kong is reclaimed by the world's last communist power, the Internet has become the battleground of ideas for both Hong Kong and Beijing. Even as pro-democracy activists are staking out the Web as the only place where they may be able to elude China's restrictions on free speech, China is trying to build a virtual Great Wall around the tiny city to protect Chinese Internet users (100,000 so far) from unregulated western communication. Hoping to offer the world "a porthole through which concerned observers . . . can view the significant period in Hong Kong history," one Hong Kong group last week launched an online weekly called The Voice of Democracy. Its mission: to provide a platform for criticism of the incoming government. Editor-in-Chief Eddy Leung says he knows that he and his colleagues could be arrested under Beijing's new mandates, but that's a risk they're willing to take to connect Hong Kong's 500,000 Internet users with the rest of the world. So, too, apparently are the producers of other controversial web sites, such as The Apple Daily, whose columnist and self-professed pimp "Fat Dragon" routinely ridicules Chinese politicians. Other web producers are lying low, fearful of the consequences. In January, Ming Pao Daily News reporter Xi Yang was released after spending nearly three years in prison for reporting on China's interest rate fluctuations, or "stealing state secrets" according to Beijing. Watching China build the world's biggest firewall to sterilize the Internet for its people makes many in Hong Kong worry about how long they can expect to live outside it. Already, Chinese Internet users must register themselves and their modems with the Public Security Bureau. Internet service providers are held accountable if problematic pages seep through, and e-mail is sniffed as thoroughly as snail mail has been scoured since 1949. While a hardline approach may work for now in China, though, Beijing's leaders may find that building an electronic great wall around Hong Kong will be an impossible feat. The virtual medium looks like Hong Kong's most powerful protection for free speech, since whatever China may do to plug the holes in the new wall by tightening its grip on Hong Kong's 49 ISPs, the Internet by nature is virtually unpoliceable. If pressed, Hong Kong's controversial web sites can merely move to the unregulated foreign web services. And sooner or later, Internet users deep in the mainland are bound to be chuckling over Fat Dragon's latest observations, and sending back some of their own.