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Beijing and Its Rulers Lack a Sense of Humor

LARRY FEIGN was last written about in this paper in a 1989 article about life as a cartoonist in Hong Kong. His daily strip in the South China Post was generally about the title character, Lily Wong, a nobody's fool Chinese girl facing life.

But it was really about the culture and clashes of the tight little Crown Colony as it edges toward being amoeba-ed by mainland China. At the time, Mr. Feign said that it was hard to get politically excited in Hong Kong because the people were more interested in money. Fate, listening, made a note.

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Last month, Feign was fired after eight years on the newspaper. He was sent a fax by the editor and told that he was part of staff cutbacks. But Feign doesn't think so. In 1993, controlling interest in the paper was sold by Rupert Murdoch who, if not a civil libertarian, at least knew what was good for circulation, to Robert Kuok, a Malaysian Chinese billionaire with commercial concerns in mainland China. Feign is sure the Beijing government prompted his dismissal. Mr. Kuok is friendly with Chinese Premier Li Peng.

During his career with the Post, Feign, an American whose wife is Chinese and who has two children, had lampooned the neglect of Hong Kong's environment, the vapidity of the British government, and the daily imperfections of life in one of the world's most crowded corners. His cartoon character Lily, while fetchingly coy, linked the political comments together. She had a variety of travails, including an intellectually challenged Australian boyfriend whose large nose prevented comfortable osculation.

But recently Feign started commenting, with black hilarity, on the reports from Human Rights Watch Asia about the sale of human organs from political prisoners in Chinese prisons. In one strip a prison guard reveals that they have stopped beating the prisoners so as not to damage their kidneys, which are worth $30,000 each. The Chinese evidently had had enough and put in a call to Kuok. Feign's editors caved in, even though the new editor was Jonathan Fenby, formerly of the London Independent, of whom more substance was expected.

They repeated the excuse that the firing was for economic reasons. Yet the strip was one of the most popular features, and the paper is one of the most profitable in the world. But Beijing is now trying to run things, and its rulers lack a sense of humor. Cartoons are usually the first to go because they are read by everyone and because laughter is so destabilizing to politicians. The firing foreshadows more of the clumsy repression for which communist governments, even ones devoted to getting rich, are known. Not happy news for Hong Kong. Feign says he's not planning to be there in 1997 when the change to Beijing rule takes place. After that, freedom of the press will still be guaranteed in the so-called Basic Law, the constitution for Hong Kong negotiated between Beijing and the British. But few are counting on the Chinese honoring their commitments. Other newspapers are preparing for increased government control and decreased objectivity.

Feign is coming to the United States, his native land, for this year's annual meeting of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists in Baltimore June 29. We'll do our best to cheer him up. Take him out for Chinese or something.

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