HONG KONG One Country, One System?

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WENDY KAN Hong KongHong Kong can be as protective of its freedoms as China is of its claims to Taiwan. Or so one mainland official discovered last week when he sparked widespread outrage in the territory for some unexpectedly heavy-handed remarks about press freedom. At a seminar organized by journalists, Wang Fengchao, deputy director of China's local liaison office, warned Hong Kong's media against airing pro-independence views on Taiwan. He was referring to the cable TV broadcast of an interview with Annette Lu, aired earlier in the month, in which Taiwan's Vice President-elect referred to Beijing as a remote relative.

Local journalists' groups, newspapers and legislators, as well as the U.S. State Department, have been quick to denounce Wang's remarks. Says Christine Loh, an outspoken politician who made her own headlines last week when she said she would quit Hong Kong's toothless legislature in frustration: It was a classic case of load gun, aim, shoot foot. Loh and others note that the Basic Law--the mini-constitution governing Hong Kong since its 1997 return to Chinese rule--guarantees citizens a high degree of political and legal autonomy from Beijing. Imposing mainland-style political control over Hong Kong, they note, would not only damage the territory's economy, but also undermine the one country, two systems principle, which Beijing wants to use as a model for enticing Taiwan to reunite.

This isn't the first time Hong Kong has been caught up in tension between China and Taiwan. Shortly before the 1997 handover, Lu Ping, then the senior Chinese official in Hong Kong, told reporters they should not advocate independence for Taiwan or Tibet. Last year, the director of Radio-Television Hong Kong was transferred out of her post shortly after the station was criticized by Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen for broadcasting a Taiwan official's explanation of President Lee Teng-hui's state-to-state formulation for relations between China and Taiwan.

In addition to his remarks on Taiwan, Wang called for the speedy drafting of local subversion and sedition legislation, ostensibly to be used against the press. The Basic Law requires that such laws be drawn up, but the Hong Kong government--sensing local wariness--has moved cautiously. To help dispel unease over Wang's words, Chief Secretary Anson Chan, speaking for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (who was traveling in the U.S.), declared that the Basic Law allows the press to comment and report on all matters of current interest.

Whether Wang's comments will have any tangible effect on Hong Kong's vigorous local press--or its reputation as a global information and financial hub--is less clear. Mak Yin-ting, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, worries that the remarks could have a chilling effect on the media, leading to self-censorship. But Martin Lee, chairman of the Democratic Party and dogged defender of Hong Kong's autonomy, says the outcry over Wang's remarks is reassuring. If there wasn't such a strong response, he says, Hong Kong would have no future. These are people who take the freedom of the press quite seriously.