While Beijing is obsessed by the supposedly '[Jiang Zemin government's slanderous term omitted]', the former British colony has a more relaxed approach, writes John Gittings

Tuesday July 24, 2001

The view out of a Hong Kong apartment window reveals a typical sight: a flight of steps and one of those mini-recreation areas that alleviate the pressures of overcrowding. And found within it, a motionless figure in the typical meditative pose of a supporter of the Falun Gong.

A few passersby on the steps pause for a curious look and then carry on. No plain-clothes police rush up and beat the practitioner or drag him off to a police van. This is Hong Kong, not Beijing, after all.

On Friday last week, the second anniversary of the mainland ban on the Falun Gong as an "[Jiang Zemin government's slanderous term omitted]", some 160 followers gathered outside the office of Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, to mark the occasion. They were left alone, too.

It was a similar demonstration, though on a much larger scale, in Beijing in 1999, outside the office of China's chief executive, President Jiang Zemin, that led to the original ban. Mr Jiang was both incensed by the group's audacity and alarmed by the extensive organisation that the protest revealed.

Beijing (perhaps one should simply say Mr Jiang) continues to be obsessed by the alleged threat posed by the Falun Gong, although it has never convincingly explained what it is that threat represents.


Meanwhile, the Falun Gong publicity network abroad - and in Hong Kong - published more accusations against the Chinese police of deliberately torturing and raping female practitioners in custody.

For the Falun Gong to survive so visibly in Hong Kong is an encouraging sign that, in spite of numerous difficulties, the territory still preserves a good measure of the autonomy guaranteed to it.

Falun Gong spokesman Kan Hung-cheung claimed last week that numbers of the local branch have risen to about 500. Mr Tung has previously caused concern by labelling the [group] - in Beijing's language - as "no doubt an [Jiang Zemin government's slanderous term omitted]" and vowing to step up surveillance.

The Hong Kong Journalists' Association warned that a dangerous precedent would be set if the government took action against the group because it was the target of a mainland political campaign. Yet for the moment it seems that Mr Tung and his senior colleagues are performing the sort of balancing act to which provincial administrations on the mainland also resort when they want to keep the central government happy.

The trick is to mouth the right phrases, of which senior cadres in Beijing will take approving note, but to avoid taking definitive action (in this case, by resorting to a ban).

The Hong Kong administration is also well aware that a ban would attract immense negative publicity abroad. As the New York Times correspondent argued in reporting the July 23 demonstration, the price of a ban would be "worldwide opprobrium, and ruination for Hong Kong's reputation as an attractive place to do business".