Thursday, October 3, 2002; Page A18

WHEN HONG KONG came under Chinese rule five years ago, some optimists predicted that the freewheeling capitalism and personal liberties of the city might begin to spread to the mainland -- that Hong Kong would effectively swallow China rather than the reverse. Sadly, they have been proven wrong. Not only has political freedom not expanded significantly in China, it is steadily shrinking in Hong Kong, despite Beijing's promise to respect the formula of "one nation, two systems." Moreover, many of those who promised to be vigilant about Hong Kong's rights at the time of the hand-over -- or to fight for their expansion -- have been apathetic about their erosion.

The latest step in a gradual but systematic elimination of the city's independence came last week when the local government issued a draft set of security laws meant to combat "subversion, sedition and treason." These would hardly seem to be threats in Hong Kong, even from China's point of view. There was little protest this year when the wildly unpopular governor, Tung Chee-hwa, was "reelected" without opposition by a Beijing-controlled council, and hardly a squeak when he celebrated the fifth anniversary of Beijing's rule by creating a new layer of government ministers accountable only to him and his mainland masters.

But there are still vestiges of a civil society in Hong Kong that Communist leaders find intolerable. The Falun Gong [...] movement, for example -- banned and persecuted on the mainland [...] -- is still legal in Hong Kong. The press is still freer, and advocates of taboo causes, such as independence for Taiwan, can speak out. Not coincidentally, the new laws would make it possible for Beijing to eliminate most of this activity; under the laws, if the Communist government designated Falun Gong as a national security threat, Hong Kong would be obliged to ban it, while someone who proposed that Taiwan be prepared to defend itself against a mainland invasion could be sentenced to prison. The judgments about what is subversive would be made in Beijing rather than Hong Kong, just as the political system now directs accountability there rather than to the city's inhabitants.

Hong Kong officials argue that the new laws were mandated by the Hong Kong constitution, or "basic law," agreed on by Britain and China before the hand-over. Yet that agreement also mandated a gradual move toward popular democracy in the city, a process that has not begun. That one mandate has been respected and the other ignored again has nothing to do with local opinion -- it is a policy that has been demanded of Hong Kong, in public, by senior Communist leaders, such as Deputy Prime Minister Qian Qichen. These officials appear to have little concern that Britain, the United States or other outside powers will react to their slow-motion suppression of Hong Kong's political autonomy, or even that they are paying much attention. Still, the suffocation of Hong Kong surely is being closely watched in the one place whose opinion should matter most to Beijing. It's hard to imagine that Taiwan's vibrant democracy, observing such a spectacle, would ever take seriously the "two systems" model that China claims to offer.