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Hong Kong media await Chinese rule

April 24, 1997

HONG KONG (AP) _ In the days when the sun would never set on the British Empire, the South China Morning Post was considered the voice of Hong Kong’s colonial establishment.

Today, with China to take over Hong Kong on July 1, the colony is abuzz with speculation about Feng Xiliang, a former editor of an official Chinese newspaper who has been given an office at the English-language Post.

That his appointment should cause such a stir shows the anxiety among journalists as they prepare to switch from life under a relatively benign British regime to the media-unfriendly realities of Communist China.

``People are getting more and more nervous,″ says Carol Lai, a former Post staffer and vice chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

Is Feng’s job, as critics have charged, to kick the venerable 94-year-old daily into shape for life under the future master?

Absolutely not, insists editor Jonathan Fenby. Feng, he says, is an editorial consultant who has neither tried _ nor has the authority _ to impose his views on the paper.

Fenby makes a persuasive case, pointing to the hard-nosed, often unflattering material about China that still appears daily in his paper.

The Hong Kong media is probably the freest in Asia. It made its name as a window into China when the mainland was at its most closed and totalitarian, and it remains a vigorous critic of both China and Britain.

But Beijing has signaled that its pledge to preserve Hong Kong’s capitalist ways for 50 years does not fully cover the media.

Senior Chinese officials set the limits in comments last year: no attacks on the Beijing leadership, no advocating independence for Taiwan or Tibet, or supporting other causes China regards as subversive.

They have also weakened legal guarantees on Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, and are suspected of withholding advertising money and business deals from media outlets deemed too critical.

China’s defenders say Beijing doesn’t want to meddle in Hong Kong, the source of much of the investment for its economic reforms, but also doesn’t want Hong Kong’s free-thinking media to influence China.

``There will be no problem as long as there is no spillover,″ said Edgar Yuen of the pro-China Hong Kong Federation of Journalists.

In this uncertain climate, many journalists have turned to self-censorship.

A Journalists Association survey in 1995 found that 90 percent of those in the business believed colleagues and bosses were toning down reports to avoid offending China. Nearly three in ten admitted to doing so themselves. TV stations have refused to air controversial foreign documentaries on Mao Tse-tung and Chinese orphanages.

But Hong Kong is already ``too politicized,″ according to Tung Chee-hwa, the shipping magnate chosen to lead the post-colonial government. Tung and his supporters believe Hong Kong needs a fire wall to deny Beijing any excuse to intrude.

That means reporters can write freely about Hong Kong’s domestic shortcomings, but will have to handle China stories with caution.

China increasingly uses its subversion laws to silence dissent. It expects Hong Kong to draw up its own anti-subversion code. How this will affect the media, nobody knows.

China’s legislature has voted to dilute Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights and repeal two laws that had made it easier to hold demonstrations and form associations with foreign groups.

Those laws were introduced in the final years of British rule and China maintains they violate the 1984 agreement on Hong Kong’s return.

One prominent China-basher is Jimmy Lai, whose Next magazine and Apple Daily have aggressively reported on China’s failings. In 1994, Lai wrote an editorial calling Chinese Premier Li Peng a ``turtle egg,″ a harsh Chinese insult.

In February, his plan to sell shares in his company, Next Media, on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange were thwarted when no brokerage would underwrite the offering. Were the brokers afraid of angering China? All they will say is that it was a business decision.

Lai’s reporters are severely restricted in China.

Editors at China-funded newspapers, including Tsang Tak-sing of the Ta Kung Pao daily, are also unsure about Beijing’s intentions.

``What will be meant by sabotage or sedition?″ he said. And, he asked, will it be possible to call Premier Li Peng a `turtle egg?′

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