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Creeping repression marks HK anniversary

The Chinese flag is raised during the handover ceremony on 1 July 1997
The Chinese flag is raised during the handover ceremony on 1 July 1997  

From Mike Chinoy
CNN Senior Asia Correspondent

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- As Hong Kong nears its fifth Chinese birthday, Beijing has promised to permit the territory to retain its freewheeling way of life.

But even as the July 1 handover anniversary approaches, there is growing concern that freedoms may be eroding.

In a tropical downpour, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) drove into Hong Kong five years ago, and promptly disappeared into barracks.

A century and a half of British colonial rule ended when the territory was handed back to China.

Today, virtually all you see of the PLA are the guards outside its downtown headquarters.

For many, the army's near-invisibility has become a reassuring symbol of how little China has interfered with Hong Kong since 1997.

But the shadow of the mainland looms large and is driving changes that critics contend are jeopardizing the territory's freedoms.

Photo gallery: 1997-2002 through the lens 

Timeline: Five years under Chinese rule 
One Country Two Systems: 5 Years On 
Five years after its handover to China, fears over Hong Kong's political fate have given way to concerns about its economic viability. CNN's Lisa Barron reports.

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CNN's Lisa Barron looks at the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China visitors.

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Hong Kong tops economic freedom rating 
Gloomy forecast for Hong Kong democracy 
Repression marks anniversary 
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Who needs Hong Kong? 

At a ceremony recently, Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa, who is effectively appointed by Beijing, joined other pro-China dignitaries to honor a newspaper widely seen as the Communist Party's mouthpiece in Hong Kong.

While in her tiny office, Mak Yin-ting, head of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, worries that fear of offending China is making the territory's once lively media pull its punches.

"You cannot see it and you don't know what you are missing. But as the insiders, we know something is missing in newspapers or even TV stations," says Mak.

Sometimes, it is not so hidden. Two months ago, Hong Kong's top English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, which is owned by a tycoon with mainland business interests, fired its long-time Beijing bureau chief, for alleged insubordination.

"It's part of a pattern at the Post where they're gradually been getting rid of all the people who write interesting copy on China or Hong Kong and toning down the paper. It's basically a process of self-censorship," says Jasper Becker, former Beijing bureau chief.

Meanwhile, the government is making some changes of its own. It has begun to tighten rules on holding demonstrations and pushed the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is outlawed in the mainland, to take a lower public profile in Hong Kong.(HK prosecutes Falun Gong)

Only this week U.S.-based exiled Chinese dissident Harry Wu was banned from visiting the territory for the second time in three months.(Full story)

And the government has delayed moves to expand representative government.(New cabinet players)

"We have always had to take into account Beijing's views and sensitivities," explains Regina Ip, Hong Kong Secretary for Security

Now, the Tung administration is preparing to enact legislation to outlaw subversion against China.

"Our objective is to criminalize only action that truly threatens national security, not just expressions of opinion," says Ip.

But critics aren't convinced. Hong Kong Legislator Martin Lee says "that means effectively all opposition will be stifled in."

Hong Kong was always special because of its blend of East and West, a Chinese city where freedom and the rule of law flourished.

Five years after the handover the fear is that what made Hong Kong unique is gradually being whittled away.




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