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World: Hong Kong Activists Urge Vigilance In Preserving Freedom

Hong Kong, 30 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- On the eve of Hong Kong's handover to communist Chinese rule, human rights and democracy activists are urging the city's population to be vigilant in preserving their social freedoms.

Hong Kong's most prominent democracy activist, legislator Martin Lee, said residents will only have themselves to blame if they voluntarily give up some of their rights and freedoms.

In a commentary today in the leading English daily, the South China Morning Post, he said: "If we practice self-censorship because we believe our freedoms will be rolled back, then this will certainly be a self-fulfilling prophesy."

Lee said journalists, civil servants and business leaders will be especially important in working to keep Hong Kong free. His comments followed a weekend statement by the human rights organization Amnesty International warning against complacency on the part of the business community and people of Hong Kong.

The statement by Amnesty's Asia-Pacific director, Rory Mungoven, said an erosion in fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong may occur gradually as the British colony becomes the Chinese Special Administrative Region. Mungoven said cumulatively, such an erosion of freedoms would change Hong Kong forever.

The warnings come amid increasing signs of self-censorship by the press in Hong Kong because of concerns about a backlash against politically sensitive reports.

Lee said in his commentary today that self-censorship is another word for fear. He urged journalists not to be afraid to cover demonstrations and politically sensitive issues.

Lee and other democracy activists have also repeatedly said that the business community must realize that any restrictions in political freedoms will affect Hong Kong's economic prosperity as well.

That prosperity is especially evident in the central Wan Chai business and shopping district. Wan Chai's terminally crowded streets are chock full of Mercedes Benz and Rolls Royce luxury cars. The number and opulence of the districts office towers rival the skyscrapers of Manhattan. On street level, there are vast networks of air-conditioned shopping malls offering a wide selection of top Western consumer goods.

Hong Kong residents interviewed in these malls by RFE/RL correspondent today expressed little concern about their free-wheeling capitalist culture reverting to the rule of communist China. Some said there may be a reduction in political freedoms but they saw little impact on their private lives.

This view was particularly strong among young ethnic Chinese "Nothing will change," said one young Chinese woman working at a shoe store. "I control my life by myself. The handover won't change that."

A young clothing store clerk named Calvin said he expected the level of political freedom to go down but he believed residents would not challenge this in the interest of stability.

"We are quite conservative," he said. "We always want to keep what we are having."

A tailor in central Hong Kong, Paul Lee, was more certain that there will be less freedom under the Chinese, especially freedom of speech. Still, Lee told RFE/RL correspondent that the end of 156 years of colonial British rule was a good thing.

Lee said it was important for Hong Kong to revert to Chinese sovereignty because of their "mother and child" relationship.