HONG KONG, Apr 27, 2001 -- (Reuters) Hong Kong's freedoms under Chinese rule may face their toughest test to date in early May when protests by the controversial Falun Gong spiritual movement could upstage a visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa's handling of the potential showdown between Jiang and the Falun Gong demonstrators will be under close scrutiny by media and human rights groups.

He will draw fierce international criticism if he stops legal assemblies by the group, banned in mainland China but still legal in this special administrative region of the [party's name omitted] country.

But Tung, picked by Beijing to run Hong Kong after Britain gave up the colony in 1997, is also under pressure to ensure his boss has a smooth visit and is neither upstaged nor embarrassed by the Falun Gong, which China has outlawed as an "[Chinese government's slanderous term omitted]".

The government's handling of the issue will test the "one country, two systems" concept guaranteed by China which gave Hong Kong relative autonomy for 50 years after the handover.

"It's a real hot potato for Tung. The well-being of the (Chinese) president must be secured, but at the same time, Hong Kong must appear to be respecting the right of expression," said Li Pang-kwong, politics lecturer at Lingnan University.

Tung issued his toughest warning yet to Falun Gong members this week, accusing them of deliberately undermining ties between Hong Kong and Beijing and seeking to damage Hong Kong's interests with plans to protest during a forum Jiang will address on May 8.


His warning came hours after over 100 Falun Gong members staged a legal and peaceful sit-in in Hong Kong to demand China stop what they said was "unreasonable persecution" of the group.


"Tung faces a huge predicament. He can't stop them from protesting, but on the other hand, he has to restrain them from very provocative acts which will embarrass Jiang," said political commentator Lau Siu-kai of the Chinese University.

"If that happens, Hong Kong may be forced (by Beijing) to ban the group or even enact Article 23," he added, referring to a law on subversion and sedition that Hong Kong has been considering.

Tung's efforts to deal delicately with the Falun Gong were torpedoed by Jiang's planned visit for the Fortune Global Forum.

The Falun Gong wants to petition Jiang, hold mass outdoor exercises, a photo exhibit and seminar, and hand out flyers. To do so legally, it must notify police at least a week in advance.

Falun Gong wants to draw world attention to what it says are more than 190 members who have died in custody in China and thousands sent to labor camps. China acknowledges a few deaths in custody, but says they were suicides or from natural causes.

Tung's harsh statement drew angry responses from pro-democracy figures and Falun Gong spokeswoman Hui Yee-han, who called his accusations "groundless".

"We have to ask him whether Hong Kong still enjoys the freedom of assembly or not," legislator Emily Lau told local newspapers. "He should not jeopardize these freedoms."

Analysts expect the protests to go ahead during Jiang's visit, with officials urging the group to refrain from confrontations and protesters kept out of Jiang's sight.

Analyst Lau said Tung's statement was meant to warn the Falun Gong and reassure Beijing.

"He can't let Beijing feel he is too lax, or worse, that he is allowing Falun Gong to use Hong Kong as their headquarters. He must convince Beijing he is in control," Lau said.