Was It Something Albert Cheng Said?
Freedom of speech has always been regarded as the canary in the coal mine that is Hong Kong's democracy under Chinese rule. Few people have exercised that freedom with as much gusto as Albert Cheng. For the aggressive, abrasive radio commentator, no subject was taboo, no tycoon too rich and no politician too powerful: Cheng attacked everyone, without fear or favor, and with thundering outbursts of laughter. Hong Kong's government and its Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa were impotent. China's communist leaders were dictators. More recently, he demanded that the government crack down on illegal stock brokerages with alleged links to the Triads, the Chinese Mafia. After three years on the air, Cheng became the conscience of Hong Kong's everyman, with nearly 1 million listeners tuning in each weekday morning to his phone-in show, Teacup in a Storm. He touches the untouchable, says taxi driver Hon Kwok-ching. He is our voice.But on the morning of Aug. 19, Cheng himself proved tragically touchable. Outside Hong Kong's Commercial Radio studios, two men wielding butchers' knives chased down the commentator and slashed him six times on his back, arms and right leg, leaving deep wounds up to 22 cm long. It took four-and-a-half hours of surgery to rejoin Cheng's broken bones, flesh and nerves, and he now faces up to two years of physical therapy before he can walk normally again.The psychological damage to Hong Kong could linger much longer. The front-page newspaper photographs of Cheng lying in pool of blood sent shock waves through the community. Citizens worried in editorials and on call-in radio shows that the former British colony was degenerating into a den of crime, while local journalists wondered who among them might be the next target. Last week, Cheng said he was fearful for his family and that it was highly unlikely he would return to the airwaves. Before the accident, I always reassured my wife that misfortune won't befall someone who does good for the community, he told TIME from his heavily guarded hospital room. Now, I have to admit how naive I was.Conscious of the attack's impact on the public psyche, Hong Kong authorities are giving the case the highest priority. Cheng was still in surgery when Chief Executive Tung called the police commissioner to demand quick answers. Backed by more than $500,000 in reward money, members of the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau have spent the past two weeks quizzing witnesses and poring over weeks of tapes of Cheng's broadcasts and video clips of his TV appearances. At this point, they suspect the assailants were hired Triad hit men from mainland China and that they had intended to murder Cheng rather than merely deliver a message. While the local press speculated that the reasons for the attack lie in Cheng's personal business dealings, police apparently believe it was politically motivated and have not yet questioned the commentator about his investments.Cheng, a self-made millionaire, scoffs at suggestions that the attack was business-related. The naturalized Canadian citizen and former auto mechanic first shot to prominence in 1986, when he launched a Chinese edition of Playboy magazine. This was followed by a series of high-profile--but largely unsuccessful--publications ranging from a Chinese version of Forbes to a gentleman's guide to horse racing. But Cheng says he has not been involved in running any business since 1994. He is a passive shareholder in several restaurants in Vancouver and is prepared to invest $1 million in a Canadian radio station. He says he has never speculated on the local stock exchange. I'm telling you, I was chopped because I said something people dare not talk about, he insists.If that's the case, the assault on Cheng is a blow to Hong Kong's reputation for maintaining the rule of law and a freewheeling press. It doesn't help that police have yet to find the men who chopped off the forearm of publisher Leung Tin-wai in May 1996, only hours after he launched his Surprise Weekly magazine. Many in Hong Kong worry Cheng's assailants too will get away with their crime. That, says Democratic Party legislator Albert Ho, could make Hong Kong a dangerous place for anyone who dares to speak out. Today it is a threat to a talk-show host, says Ho. Tomorrow it will be a politician.For his part, Cheng remains feisty as ever, accusing Tung of being too soft on crime and criticizing the press for its love of gruesome crime pictures, including photos of his own attack. But now his audience is limited to his wife and a reporter--and that's probably how it will be for a while. Until the assailants are arrested, I will not host any show again, he says. It is just not worth it. The canary is still breathing, but only barely.Reported by Isabella Ng/Hong Kong