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Battle Lines Are Drawn Over Hong Kong's Press

China tries to stifle criticism by colony's sometimes outspoken media

LAU YUI-SIU has felt Beijing's fury.

A former China correspondent for Wen Wei Pao, a pro-Beijing mouthpiece in Hong Kong, Mr. Lau reported incisively on Communist Party infighting during the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing. To escape impending arrest, he fled back to the British colony after the Army crushed the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that June.

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Lau, who today is deputy editor of the China-watching Contemporary Monthly, sees Beijing's recent attacks on Hong Kong colleagues working in China as a warning not to delve too deeply.

Xi Yang, a reporter for the Chinese-language Ming Pao, an authoritative Hong Kong voice, was arrested in September and charged with stealing state banking secrets with the help of a central bank clerk.

A year ago, China detained briefly and then expelled Leung Wai-man of Hong Kong's Express News for buying an advance copy of Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin's speech to a party congress. Last August, an editor from the official New China News Agency was imprisoned for life and another reporter sentenced to six years for selling state secrets to the Hong Kong journalist.

``The Chinese government really wants to do something to threaten the foreign press and their sources in China,'' Lau says, explaining that Hong Kong reporters are feared because of their good networks of contacts. ``They think if this kind of arrest happens ... it will stop the Hong Kong press. But I think it will only encourage them to try harder to overcome this, because journalists in Hong Kong are not afraid and want to protect their freedom.''

While many Hong Kong journalists defiantly uphold press freedoms in the colony, China has thrown into doubt the future of one of Asia's liveliest media. Come 1997, when Hong Kong reverts to China, journalists fear there will be little tolerance for a free press challenging Communist Party rule. Hong Kong feels tremors

Lau recently returned to China for the first time since 1989 and is now trying to start exchange programs between mainland and Hong Kong journalists.

``After 1997, the press freedom in Hong Kong will be downgraded. There will be Chinese influence,'' Lau says, although ``it won't be the same as on the mainland,'' he says. Still four years away from the turnover, China is already sending tremors through the colony press.

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In September, Robert Kuok Hock Nien, a Malaysian businessman close to Beijing communists, bought a one-third interest in the English-language South China Morning Post from media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The Post, whose 110,000 circulation includes expatriates and local businessmen, has been a strong backer of the democratic reforms of the British governor, Chris Patten.

Mr. Kuok has denied that China was behind the takeover, although media observers and Post reporters say the paper has already started to water down some of its coverage, and they predict the acquisition will gradually blunt the paper's pro-democracy stance. ``We're seeing the beginning of real political interference in reporting and editing,'' says a senior colony official.

But new battle lines are being drawn with the planned launch of a new English-language daily early next year. Oriental Press Group Ltd., publisher of Hong Kong's largest-circulation newspaper, the Oriental Daily News, recently confirmed rumors that a third English newspaper will soon hit the stands. The financially strong publisher, believed to have Taiwan connections and pro-Western sympathies, will enter the fiercely competitive Hong Kong market against the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Standard and the South China Morning Post.

The group reportedly has been lured into the fray by a promise of lucrative advertising by the British administration, which fears losing the support of the Post.

Still, most publications have taken the cautious middle ground, urging an end to the dispute between Britain and China but opting for self-censorship rather than strong editorializing out of fear of offending Beijing. Pressure growing

This year, Sing Tao Daily, a newspaper known for its right-wing leanings and connections to Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang, suffered a spate of resignations after staff complaints that the business office was trying to soften China coverage. The editorial shift followed announcement of the paper's plan to expand on the mainland.

Daisy Li, head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said at a recent meeting on the future of the Hong Kong press that the outlook is bleak, warning that seldom-used restrictions imposed on the press by the British colonial government could become future weapons under Chinese rule.

``Pressure is growing on newspaper proprietors to ensure that they are not seen to be anti-Beijing,'' she said in a speech.

On the mainland, the arrests of Hong Kong journalists have come amid new calls for tighter state security as a decade of economic reforms has eroded political controls.

Meanwhile, Fan Jingyi, a mainland newspaper editor known for his liberal economic views and an advocate of press reform, recently was named editor of People's Daily (seen as the Communist Party's mouthpiece) follow- ing the removal of hard-line propagandists. Newspapers such as Shanghai's Wenhui Daily are forming joint ventures with partners in the United States and elsewhere and circulating their product within China.

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