Hong Kong Marks Anniversary Amid Fears For Press Freedom

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July 1, 2007: Thousands of people march for democracy in Hong Kong. Front row, from left: activist Jackie Hung, Cardinal Joseph Zen, activist Szeto Wah, legislator Martin Lee and media mogul Jimmy Lai. (RFA/Li Lianjun)

HONG KONG—Hong Kong marked its 10th anniversary Sunday since the handover to Chinese rule amid fears the territory's traditional freedoms may be eroded—and amid calls for universal suffrage.

Tens of thousands of people marched following official celebrations marking the end of British rule, calling for full universal suffrage and direct election of the chief executive, currently hand-picked by Beijing.

"Since the Hong Kong handover, Hong Kong still has a half-baked democracy," Lee Cheuk-yan, one of the protest's organisers, told reporters.

Demonstrators carried banners that read "We want democracy," and "One person, one vote" as they marched to the government's headquarters.

President Hu arrives

Hong Kong still has a half-baked democracy.

Hong Kong's former deputy leader Anson Chan and Cardinal Joseph Zen, the head of the Catholic church in the territory, were among the high-profile figures present at the protest.

Organisers said 68,000 people had taken part, 10,000 more than in 2006, while police said they had counted 20,000 so far.

The anniversary rally, which has become something of a popular tradition, drew half a million people onto the streets in its first year in 2003, in protest at an anti-subversion law that Beijing wanted the territory's legislature to pass.

The following year saw almost twice the number of protesters after Beijing's parliament, the National People's Congress, intervened to rule out direct elections of all 60 lawmakers and the chief executive, who is currently hand-picked by China's Communist Party.

Lee said he hoped Chinese President Hu Jintao, who arrived Friday for the handover celebrations, would listen to their aspirations.

Hong Kong media are diverse and still flourishing, subject to none of the internal controls imposed on mainland media. But they have proven unwilling to report anything that makes China look bad, commentators said.

Media self-censors

01 July 2007: Demonstrators march for democracy during the 10th anniversary of the city's handover to China, in Hong Kong. (RFA/Li Lianjun)

A former chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, Mak Yin-ting, quoted a recent survey of media professionals in the territory.

"Sixty percent of Hong Kong journalists believed that press freedom has decreased in the 10 years since the handover as a result of self-censorship," he told RFA's Mandarin service.

"This self-censorship is of negative news about China, or that which the journalists themselves believe the Chinese government regards as sensitive," he said.

"Thirty percent of them admitted to having censored themselves at some point, and 40 percent of them said they knew that their colleagues and their superiors had done so too."

"That is a very high proportion," Mak said, adding that around half of the top media bosses in Hong Kong had close political ties with mainland China, making them more likely to be friendly to Beijing.

Former legislative councillor and news professional Emily Lau Wai-hing agreed. "It's very hard to say if there really is a lack of freedom in the media, but the problem of self-censorship is huge," she said.

Individual politics

Meanwhile, the Taiwan authorities have expressed concern at the turning away of more than 40 Taiwan Falun Gong practitioners ahead of the anniversary.

The practitioners of the banned spiritual movement, which Beijing has branded an "evil cult," would normally be allowed to enter Hong Kong. But travel agents said their names appeared on a blacklist and they had been refused permission to land.

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, whose island Beijing also claims, cited a tightening of control over personal freedoms and democracy in the past decade of Chinese rule.

"Ten years have elapsed but everything enshrined by the Basic Law endorsed by [China's] National People's Congress turned out to be only lip service," Chen said in a newsletter posted on the Web site of the Presidential Office.

Under the agreement that saw the return of Hong Kong in 1997, China promised to keep the territory's freewheeling economy and freedoms unchanged for 50 years.

Chen, from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, said China had failed to uphold its guarantee regarding Hong Kong.

"Rather, it has increasingly become more like China... Hong Kong looks like a caged bird and the cage is getting smaller," he said.

Michael DeGolyer, professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the political system's over-dependence on one individual has led to public fears about its stability, although people are broadly satisfied with their current leader.

A 10-year study he conducted for the Hong Kong Transition Project showed that public confidence in the territory's future as part of China plummeted under its first post-handover leader, but it recovered when Donald Tsang took over as chief executive in 2005.

"It's quite clear in Hong Kong that we had a systemic crisis in the last 10 years," he said, referring to the events of 2003-04 when Hong Kong people took to the streets in an unprecedented protest that led to the resignation of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

"And when you ask yourself what has changed, the only thing is the chief executive. I think that's one reason why there's such demand for constitutional reform."

President Hu arrived Friday for the celebrations. These included hundreds of government-sponsored events, including fireworks, the presentation of two pandas, and displays by People's Liberation Army troops stationed in the territory.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu and in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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