April 27, 2001

Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa is yet again casting doubt on the "one country, two systems" arrangement that was intended to distinguish Hong Kong from its parent to the north. As before, the target of Mr. Tung's attack is freedom of speech and assembly and the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Since taking the helm in 1997, Mr. Tung has offered frequent indications that he would prefer to turn over difficult issues to China's communist government than to let them be settled by rule of law in Hong Kong. But in February he lived down to expectations completely when at the height of the Chinese government's attempt to crush Falun Gong he said the group bore "[slanderous terms omitted]" and promised to monitor it closely. That triggered a series of similar public warnings from Beijing's henchmen in the city and renewed debate about enacting an anti-subversion law that could make Falun Gong illegal.

On Wednesday, Mr. Tung lashed out at the group for planning to stage a "peaceful appeal" to Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he attends the Fortune Global Forum there next month. No doubt, Mr. Tung feels caught between the ire of Mr. Jiang's Scylla and the Charybdis of the international media scrutinizing Hong Kong's reputation for civil liberties.

But no one with an ounce of humanity could fault Falun Gong for trying to buttonhole Mr. Jiang while he's in Hong Kong and rubbing elbows with Gerald Levin, Steve Ballmer, James Murdoch, Bill Clinton and others.

True to form, police in Beijing on Tiananmen Square Wednesday chased, beat and dragged away about 30 Falun Gong followers who had tried to commemorate the anniversary of the group's first demonstration against the Chinese government two years ago and mourn the tens of thousands practitioners detained, thousands imprisoned and deaths of more than 100 in custody since Falun Gong was banned in July 1999.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, 200 practitioners out of the some 500 living in the city staged a peaceful sit-in, provoking Mr. Tung's outburst. In a twist of gerrymandered logic that would do his Beijing masters proud, he accused Falun Gong of trying to undermine relations between Hong Kong and Beijing and warned that he would "not allow them to abuse Hong Kong freedoms and tolerance... "

It's important for many people in Hong Kong to believe that Mr. Tung has merely found a way of nodding to the emperor while preserving Hong Kong's autonomy. But the truth is that time and again the chief executive has shown himself to be no true believer in the constitutional protections that set Hong Kong apart from the mainland. Nor do the members of his inner-most circle -- advisers such as Executive Council member Nellie Fong or Regina Ip, the Falun Gong-bashing secretary for security -- see in the treatment of the Falun Gong spiritual movement the litmus test of Hong Kong's freedom and autonomy.

As leader of the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Mr. Tung sets the tone for his administration. Few who believe Hong Kong should remain a place where the rule of law prevails have a place in his administration. The abrupt resignation in January of Anson Chan, the most forceful advocate of Hong Kong's autonomy, appears to have been, at least in part, the result of her insistence that Falun Gong had the lawful right to hold a conference in a venue run by the city's government.

Mr. Tung could have made use of the Fortune Global Forum to trumpet Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms under the "one country, two system" formula. Instead, he has paid the wrong piper. It would not be wrong for the international community to conclude that under his lack of leadership, freedom in Hong Kong is ever more fragile.