South China Morning Post, April 10, 1994



Harsh Truth in Seeking Facts

 
 

By Martin Lee

:Seek truth from facts.; To many, the People・s Supreme Court made a mockery of Deng Xiao-ping・s well-known instruction by sentencing Hong Kong journalist Xi Yang to 12 years・ imprisonment. In Hong Kong, this event has signalled once again the price of seeking facts in China may be far too high.

The lessons here are not just for journalists but for all of us who will soon live under Chinese sovereignty. Indeed, the Xi incident represents exhibit A in a case that China・s legal system is an oxymoron, a contradictory concept.

When Ming Pao reporter Xi was detained last summer, Xinhua (the New China News Agency) announced he has been arrested for :espionage regarding state secrets on banking;. The state secrets apparently involved the Bank of China・s unremarkable plans :regarding interest rate movements and sale of gold in the international market;. Xi was an experienced journalist employed full-time by a Hong Kong newspaper. Like reporters for this paper and others, he was in China on the trail of a scoop.

Throughout most of the world, reporters win awards for gathering information and investigative reporting. Few journalists would have reason to think financial information provided by that most common of journalistic sources V a government official V would constitute a state secret. Perhaps one of the reasons Xi・s case has struck a chord with Hong Kong reporters is they have always assumed (now falsely, it seems) so long as they covered business and economics V and steered clear of politics V they would stay out of hot water.

Once charged, Xi was denied legal representation (the authorities explained he :did not want a lawyer;) and visits by his family or employer. Tried in secret, he was sentenced to a 12-year jail term and stripped of political rights for a further two years. He is to be permitted an appeal but the lawyer representing him must be endorsed by the Higher People・s Court and he has had one lawyer ditch his case already. In the light of this treatment, it is worth remembering at least under the Chinese constitution, Xi was exercising the freedom of speech and of the press, guaranteed to all Chinese citizens.

But in China, the letter of the law has little significance and the courts have only one master: the Chinese Communist Party. Most laws exist principally to bolster the power of the state. This is why the clarification of guidelines for Hong Kong journalists in China will make little difference. Xi would have been :presumed guilty until found guilty; anyway.

Sentencing, too, is subject to cadre capriciousness. Last year a Xinhua sub-editor was sentenced to life imprisonment for revealing an advance copy of a dry speech by Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin. The Express journalist who reported it was lucky: she was released after a week・s detention. But given the ease of passing such draconian sentencing, it would not be surprising if some journalists in Hong Kong were to take this opportunity to question their choice of profession.

Knowledge is power and in China, as with other authoritarian regimes, leaders tightly control information. The press serves as a propaganda function. But in Hong Kong, we attach special value to our media which serves to keep the public informed, and keep politicians and the business community more or less honest. Equally important, the international business community V Hong Kong・s golden egg-laying goose V has come to rely on subjective coverage of local and international events.

For although it is quite normal in China to harness the press to the political whims of party cadres and the policy aims of the central authorities, gagging the press and impeding the free flow of information in Hong Kong will almost certainly deal a mortal blow to our image as a world-class financial center.

But clearly Beijing is engaged in a long-term effort to transfer China・s system of press controls to Hong Kong. Hong Kong journalists have found themselves bribed, blacklisted and befriended in the process. Making an example of Xi Yang is merely the latest attempt to rattle Hong Kong journalists and to cripple the development of the powers and autonomy of the press during the transitional period to control information in Hong Kong after 1997.

The assurances from Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Director Lu Ping that :the sentence will not affect Hong Kong reporters・ normal reporting work; ring hollow. Likewise, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Jianmin maintains so long as Hong Kong reporters stick to :economic information in an effort to boost [China・s] economic and trade relations;, there should be no need for concern. China・s local advisers insist Xi・s case has no relevance to Hong Kong reporters because he is a mainlander. But it is wrong for us to think that because he is originally from China, Xi・s predicament has nothing to do with the rest of us in Hong Kong.

In fact, Xi・s case and the steady erosion of our press freedom is only a single piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Hong Kong・s transition of sovereignty to China. With Beijing in the throes of a succession crisis, current policy towards Hong Kong on pree freedom and political reform is dictated principally by old and weary men. In the vacuum of power created by Deng Xiaoping・s failing health, Hong Kong provides a convenient target for hardline dogma.

For a long time, Britain and China led Hong Kong people to believe there would be a smooth transition in 1997 V that, for instance, only one or two legislators would be thrown off the legislative through train for their beliefs. But in the past year we have learned China intends to derail all three tiers of our system of representative government and there will be no through train for senior civil servants. Similarly, our business community has been intimidated, and companies and individuals who support democratic reform have been targeted for retribution.

Although there have been earlier attempts to bully V or simply buy V Hong Kong・s local papers into submission, Xi Yang・s case is an omen there may well be no through train for journalists either. And if China does succeed in gagging the press in Hong Kong as in China, it is safe to say :one country, two systems; will be close to impossible.

I hope Beijing will see the good sense of releasing Xi Yang immediately and take a hard look at the debilitating effect his conviction and sentencing have already had on Hong Kong・s confidence. But if China fails to do so, the reasons for the Xi verdict must be made public and Xi must be provided a defence lawyer of his own choice, who should be permitted to defend him without interference of any kind. Beijing has an obligation to allow Xi Yang a fair appeal that is open to the public V and most importantly V the press.

Xi・s situation is an opportunity for Hong Kong people to look critically at China・s system and recongise the value of our own. What happened to Xi is not currently a possibility in Hong Kong because we have accountable judges in an independent judicial system. We have separation of powers where the executive is checked by the legislature and cannot interfere with the administration of justice.

But it will not always be so. After 1997, Beijing will control the executive through appointments and can influence the judiciary through its interpretation of the Basic Law. If we do not have a legislature that is democratically constituted with enough members to say :no; to Beijing on Hong Kong matters of vital importance, we will have little hope of preserving our rule of law and freedoms. Beijing will have succeed in its effort to transfer China・s authoritarian system to Hong Kong and we will have no press freedom, no accountability and no rule of law.

I hope our press will not be intimidated into silence by the Xi Yang case. Ultimately, whether Hong Kong is able to maintain a society where the rule of law is supreme and where the press can report freely, will depend on whether we as a community recongise these values are what make Hong Kong and China so clearly two systems. Unless we speak up and fight to preserve our way of life now, we will surely see our promised autonomy perish. And Xi Yang・s case will only be a chilling sign of things to come.


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