Thursday, March 1, 2001

Human right watch: the US State Department report showed deepening concerns in Washington over police handling of demonstrations, Falun Gong, treatment of domestic helpers and pressure on the media.

The SAR officials in Washington have been busy over the past two weeks arranging a new programme by which staff of the United States Congress will be able to see for themselves the state of affairs in post-handover Hong Kong.

Speaking at an annual spring reception nearly three weeks ago, the SAR Government's senior representative in the US, Commissioner for Economic and Trade Affairs Jacqueline Willis, passed on to her Washington audience comments made earlier that same day by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa during a question-and-answer session before the Legislative Council.

"We will implement the Basic Law faithfully, protect the two systems under one country, and maintain the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong and all the systems which are the foundation of Hong Kong's success," he had told legislators.

At the same time, however, Mr Tung repeated an earlier warning that the Government would maintain a close watch on the activities of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in Hong Kong. But he also struck a positive note by rejecting calls from some pro-Beijing figures to hurriedly draft a law on subversion, as will eventually be required under Article 23 of the Basic Law.

For weeks before Monday's publication of the US State Department's report on human rights, SAR officials and analysts have worried that a string of tirades against Falun Gong by various pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong might deepen concerns in Washington that civil liberties are gradually being eroded in the SAR.

These observers are only too aware of the damaging impact any government action to curb Falun Gong would have on perceptions about Hong Kong in the US and in the international community as a whole.

Fortunately, the State Department's report carried only a terse statement about Falun Gong in Hong Kong and, in that way, put across the all-important message that the SAR remains different from other parts of China. The report said: "Despite the ban on the Falun Gong in mainland China, the Falun Gong remained legally registered and generally free to continue its activities in Hong Kong."

The report, this portion of which was compiled by the State Department's China specialists, continued in carefully chosen language: "The [SAR] Government generally respected the human rights of residents, and the law and judiciary generally provided effective means of dealing with individual instances of abuse."

Among the concerns cited in the report were: excessive use of force by the police, media self-censorship, limited say by the public in Government, and use of Hong Kong as a springboard for illegal migrants attempting to enter the US.

The report's bland verdict - of an acceptable "general" situation despite worrying "individual" abuses - summed up perceptions of Hong Kong inside the US Government and among some SAR watchers in Washington.

"This is a little more positive than I had expected," one Hong Kong official said, noting that a string of worrying events had caused concerns about Hong Kong in Washington to deepen in the past few months.

These events include the resignation of Willy Wo-Lap Lam as China editor of the South China Morning Post; the outburst by Chinese President Jiang Zemin against a group of Hong Kong reporters; the sudden departure of Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang from government service; and the latest storm over Falun Gong's activities in the SAR.

Although these events might be unrelated, people tend to link them in discussions of the increasingly sombre scene in the SAR. The events are seen either as a wake-up call for the people of Hong Kong or as confirmation of pre-conceived negative notions about the communist regime in Beijing.

Over a longer span of time, these people expect Hong Kong's media proprietors to employ subtle and indirect measures to avoid publishing anything that might antagonise China in their media products. They see increasing pressure put on journalists to adopt mainland values, rules and practices. They imagine voices of conscience will vanish in the corridors of power, just as Mrs Chan lost favour in Beijing and so lost her place in government. Falun Gong practitioners - who have emerged as a reluctant test of the "one country, two systems" principle - will feel their arms twisted by those who would sacrifice their rights in order to preserve harmony between the SAR and the central authorities.

If the "so far, so good" verdict reached about Hong Kong in the early post-handover days has not yet been overturned - and it appears intact in the State Department's latest findings - this is perhaps because of Hong Kong's determination to combat threats to its unique system and lifestyle.

Self-censorship remains the exception rather than the rule in Hong Kong's media. Chinese leaders' calls on the SAR's media to balance press freedom with social responsibility have not resulted in new laws gagging the media.

Although Mrs Chan's departure raised grave concerns, her successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, is being given the benefit of the doubt and is expected to speak up for Hong Kong's interests.

Reason seems to have returned in Hong Kong's pro-Beijing circles, a welcome change after their chorus of calls on the Government to outlaw Falun Gong. Tsang Hin-chi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, said on Sunday that although he would still raise the Falun Gong issue at a higher political level in Beijing, it was a matter for the SAR Government to handle.

The events highlighted in the State Department report - and in several others compiled by foreign governments, media organisations and research institutes - reflect international sensitivity over matters bearing on the "one country, two systems" policy. Increasingly, such events will be read as a measure of the balance of power between Beijing and Hong Kong.

More importantly, such events will - rightly or wrongly - be viewed in the wider context of developments on the mainland. So long as China's regime remains autocratic and its human-rights record dismal, doubts will linger about the viability of "one country, two systems" in Hong Kong.