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Hong kong from british rule

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Jun. 30, 2003. 01:00 AM
Loss of free speech feared as radio show host silenced

MARTIN REGG COHN

The masks have come off, but are muzzles taking their place?

As Hong Kong recovers from the fear of SARS, this freewheeling port city still can't breathe easily. Now, a political virus, not a medical threat, haunts Hong Kong.

This time, the disease is censorship. And the index case for free speech is the territory's most popular talk show host, Albert Cheng.

In the six years since the British handed their former colony back to Chinese sovereignty, Cheng has been the proverbial canary in the coal mine scrutinized for any early warning signs of distress. This month, Cheng's outspoken voice fell silent, and disappointed listeners are asking if the oxygen of free speech is fading from the airwaves.

In a stiff formal warning, the local Broadcasting Authority ruled that Cheng interrupted and was rude to government guests who appeared on his top-rated show, Teacup in a Storm.

A self-made millionaire and self-proclaimed voice of the people, the flamboyant Cheng has gone off the air indefinitely. Bolting Hong Kong in a huff, he is taking time off in Canada, the country where he worked as a business consultant and called home for 15 years until the 1980s.

"I'm rude and why not? There are no laws that say I can't be rude," Cheng, 57, protests indignantly in an interview. "I'm rude, I interrupt and I'm impolite."

So was Cheng truly impolite? Or merely impolitic?

The case has raised alarm bells because it comes against the backdrop of a bitter debate over political freedoms in Hong Kong.

In the next few days, Hong Kong is expected to enact a tough new national security bill that outlaws subversion, sedition, treason and other crimes against the state with more power for police and life prison sentences for many offences.

Apprehension over Article 23, as the proposed national security laws are known, has led to street protests and international criticisms, most recently from Ottawa.

Cheng's case, however, is a story that the man on the street can relate to viscerally.

Nicknamed "Taipan," he has a fondness for pinstriped suits and Jaguars after making his fortune on a local Playboy magazine franchise. But he is regularly tuned in by taxi drivers and shopkeepers, who delight in the way he grills guests and cuts off longwinded officials if they recite stale press lines.

"It's the mentality, the climate of Hong Kong that has changed," says Cheng. "The Broadcasting Authority, they are the so-called establishment in Hong Kong. Their mentality coincides very much with Article 23."

Open-line radio shows serve as a safety valve in any democracy, and Cheng's show fulfils that role. Except that Hong Kong is far from being democratic.

It is ruled by an unelected chief executive and a pseudo-legislature whose members are chosen by representatives of the entrenched elites, such as the banking and property sectors. Yet even without universal suffrage, Hong Kong has always relied on the rule of law.

Now, the law of the land is being changed as part of the national security package. And free speech is at stake.

Article 23 has blown a chill wind over this port city because it emanates from mainland China. Under the terms of the 1997 handover from British colonial rule, Hong Kong was mandated by Beijing to implement the new national security laws, which it is only now getting around to.

But as tomorrow's sixth anniversary approaches, critics fear the local government has gone overboard: It proposes to enhance police powers to search without warrants, to perpetuate outdated offences relating to treason and sedition, to ban local organizations that are linked to groups deemed a threat by the mainland and to prosecute the theft of state secrets.

Local journalists fear Article 23 will cast a shadow of self-censorship on an already muted media. Hence the hypersensitivity to the latest move against Cheng's popular open-line show.

The Broadcasting Authority says it acted after receiving 157 public complaints about two broadcasts last April.

In one show, Cheng called a deputy housing director a "dog-like" official for ignoring the exploitation of manual workers on job sites. The next day, he condemned the acting chief executive of the Hospital Authority, Ko Wing-man, for failing to safeguard medical workers against the risk of infection from SARS.

The official warning said Cheng had failed to "take special care in the use of language," had rudely interrupted his guests, failed to give them equal time, and harmed their reputations.

On reflection, Cheng concedes it may have been in poor taste to compare a local civil servant to a dog. After all, he muses, why malign canines for the sins of pigheaded bureaucrats?

Still, regular listeners know that Cheng uses the dog metaphor frequently, even against himself. He once called himself a "mad dog" who barks behind the microphone.

"I thought I could say whatever I want, and people treated me as a window of freedom," Cheng says. "I serve as a symbol of free speech. Now, they've broken the window."

Now, Cheng says he's had it with Hong Kong.

"I'm serious this isn't a gesture. I'm just fed up, I've been through so many problems and difficulties these last few years," he says.

For the next few months he plans to lie low in Canada. "We'll try Vancouver, and I'll be a fat cat."

Additional articles by Martin Regg Cohn




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