Sunday, June 17, 2001

At last Tung Chee-hwa has made up his mind about Falun Gong. The chronically indecisive Chief Executive, who is famous in Government for delaying any firm decision for as long as possible, finally came out and unambiguously called the group an "[Chinese government's slanderous term omitted]" when questioned by legislators on Thursday. His previous statements on the issue had been hedged with typical Tung ambiguities. In February, he said Falun Gong "more or less" fitted the "[Chinese government's slanderous term omitted]" label. And last month he called them "a bit of a xx". So it was almost inevitable that Mr Tung's latest remarks would be widely interpreted as a deliberate effort to intensify pressure on the group to curtail its activities in Hong Kong. But the truth might be far simpler.

All the qualifications in his earlier remarks did not save him from being flailed worldwide for seeming to do China's bidding in attacking those who do nothing more harmful than breathing exercises.

But nor did they win him much credit in the eyes of some of Beijing's staunchest allies. "Tung Chee-hwa's initial remarks on Falun Gong showed his ignorance and insensitivity," complained Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate Lau Nai-keung, in an article for the Post. "After all, either Falun Gong is an '[Chinese government's slanderous term omitted]' as asserted by the Chinese authorities, or it is not."

He claimed the central Government found Mr Tung's earlier comments "vague and evasive" and were unhappy an SAR Chief Executive seemed unable to make up his mind about a group which Beijing had so categorically denounced.

In other words, and not for the first time, Mr Tung's indecisiveness meant he had got the worst of both worlds. And by finally coming off the fence last Thursday, he has at least ensured that, from now on, he will only have to contend with criticism from one direction.

Although those who prefer to see the issue in more clear-cut terms may strongly disagree, it remains important to draw a distinction between rhetoric and action. Mr Tung's "[Chinese government's slanderous term omitted]" remarks were certainly unsavoury and not befitting the head of an ostensibly free society such as the SAR. Recent tirades by "Red" Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the Falun Gong-hating Secretary for Security, fall even more firmly into this category.

But Mr Tung's latest comments will only constitute a fundamental threat to "one country, two systems" if followed by concrete action to curtail the activities of those carrying out purely peaceful activities in Hong Kong.

The SAR came perilously close to crossing this line with the shameful denial of entry to about 100 Falun Gong followers during last month's Fortune Global Forum.

But on the issue that constitutes the most crucial test of all, namely emulating France in introducing an anti-xx law, the administration has so far stopped short of going too far.

Even as Mr Tung stepped up his rhetoric against Falun Gong, he also made clear he had no immediate plans to take any tangible action against the group. Indeed, he specifically ruled out any prospect of enacting an anti-xx law in the near future.

It might suit the agenda of some right-wing United States publications, who are often quick to engage in a spot of China-bashing, to declare that Mr Tung has already crossed the rubicon as far as Falun Gong is concerned. But the reality, even if disguised by last Thursday's distasteful rhetoric, is that he seems to have stepped back from any actual action that would push Hong Kong across this line - and place the survival of "one country, two systems" in real jeopardy.

Danny Gittings ( is the Post's Editorial Pages Editor.