Emily LAU: Letter to Hong Kong (6 June 2004)

Seven years after the change of sovereignty, the central government in Beijing has interfered with Hong Kong affairs in the most blatant and alarming way. Anxious about the outcome of the Legislative Council election in September, mainland officials are pulling out all the stops to prevent a pro-democracy victory.

They did so by interpreting the Basic Law, saying only Beijing has the right to decide on Hong Kong's constitutional development. This was swiftly followed by a decision of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress which ruled out direct election for the Chief Executive in 2007 and for all members of the Legislative Council in 2008.

The decision flies in the face of popular demand for the right to elect the government by universal and equal suffrage. Adding insult to injury, mainland official described the fight for democracy as a conspiracy to turn Hong Kong into an independent political entity. There are also dark allegations that foreign agents are collaborating with local activists to subvert the system.

As we get closer to the seventh anniversary of the founding of the HKSAR on July first, Beijing is concerned that there would be a huge turnout for the demonstration on that day. Last year, more than half a million people took to the streets to protest against the administration of Mr. C.H. Tung.

In anticipation of the demonstration, many mainland officials and security agents are said to have arrived in the SAR. Given the rising tension, some political activists are concerned that some people may try to stir up trouble by provoking small scale disturbances. This may have the effect of scaring away peaceful protestors, or even forcing the organisers to abandon the big march.

Although Hong Kong is not a democracy, the people enjoy many freedoms and radio phone-in programmes is a very visible evidence of such freedom. Some outspoken radio talk show hosts are regarded by many listeners as their idols. Thus when three outspoken radio talk show hosts, -- Albert Cheng, Wong Yuk-man and Allen Lee -- suddenly stepped down last month, the community was stunned.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the loss of one radio talk show host may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness. Losing three seems downright sinister. The three, all working for Commercial Radio, said they were forced to abandon their microphones because of threats and political pressure from Beijing and their supporters in Hong Kong. Their departure was taken as a signal of erosion of the freedom of expression and has caused widespread concern both locally and overseas.

Responding to the public uproar, the Hong Kong government and the business elite dismissed the fears as groundless. Mr Tung and his officials only issued bland assurances that free speech and the rule of law are guaranteed by the Basic Law. Such attitude gives the impression that the SAR's autonomy does not need to be defended and that everything will turn out all right. In so doing, Mr. Tung runs the risk of further alienating the people by refusing to heed their demands.

Underlying this controversy is Beijing's concern about Hong Kong people's demand for democracy. Some mainland officials have misguidedly concluded that the radio phone-in programmes were responsible for whipping up expectations for democratic reforms. Thus they naively believe that if the culprits are removed, the problem will go away.

In the Legco election to be held on 12 September, half of the 60 legislators will be directly elected. This has led to expectation that pro-democracy candidates may be able to secure a majority in Legco. This has touched a raw nerve and made some mainland officials fear that the SAR could become ungovernable. In the past few months, radio phone-in programmes have been inundated with calls from distressed voters saying they have received pressure on how they should vote in September.

One caller said he works for a Hong Kong company based in the mainland and was instructed by his boss to vote for a pro-Beijing party, otherwise he would be dismissed. Another caller said he was told to take a photograph of the ballot paper in order to prove he has voted in the correct way. One caller said he was told each voter would be given $300 as reward for voting as directed.

A voter in my constituency who owns a factory in the mainland called my ward office two weeks ago to complain that he had been told by an influential mainlander to hand over the names of 100 Hong Kong voters and their telephone numbers. Frightened of possible dire consequences, he complied.

The latest accusation was broadcast on Commercial Radio three days ago. A lady caller said she recently joined a women's organisation linked to a pro-Beijing political party to learn Chinese painting, but later found out that someone had forged her signature to register her as a voter. The police are now investigating this and other cases.

In the run-up to the Legco election in September, there are bound to be more allegations and controversies. Such development is most unsettling. It now appears that the mainland authorities have concluded that there are enemies operating in Hong Kong who are trying to turn the SAR into an independent political entity.

In order to defeat these people, all tactics will be employed. There may be attempts to discredit pro-democracy activists and even ruin their reputation. In short, Hong Kong people should be psychologically prepared that things may get even more nasty and ugly.

I have always said the success of "one country, two systems" is contingent on the mainland authorities exercising self-restraint. There is no doubt that Hong Kong is very much beholden to China and there is no evidence of any person or group trying to make Hong Kong independent. At the end of the day, if Beijing is determined to wipe out all dissenting voices, Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city.

Seven years after the change of sovereignty, the survival of Hong Kong as a free and vibrant city underpinned by the rule of law is at stake. It will require all the people's wisdom and determination to see themselves through this crisis.