Peking's tolerance tested

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Protesters in Hong Kong yesterday attacked the visit of the former president of China. This time they got away with it. But Stephen Vines says the real test of how much democracy the former colony enjoys under the new order will come in six months.

The protesters were out yesterday to greet Yang Shangkun, 90-year-old former president of China, who is widely regarded in Hong Kong as one of the architects of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Mr Yang is the most senior of the retired Chinese officials who have been visiting the territory. Although he no longer holds an official position in the hierarchy, he is still an influential figure.

As is becoming customary, the Hong Kong authorities were secretive about his itinerary and deployed large numbers of police to provide security. However, demonstrators from the anarchist-inclined 5 April Action Group discovered that he was having lunch with the Chief Executive, Tung Chee- hwa, at the former Governor's residence, and staged a sit-in outside its gates.

They called for Mr Yang to take responsibility for the massacre and demanded he should go home. In theory, demands of this kind could be regarded as subversion under Hong Kong's new mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, although what counts as subversion has yet to be defined. The police removed the protesters on grounds of obstruction, insisting their removal had nothing to do with the nature of the demonstration. No one was arrested. Nor were any of those taking part in a subsequent demonstration demanding the release of political prisoners in China. Such demonstrations on the mainland meet an instant response and might end in prison sentences for those involved, but Mr Tung has said demonstrations "are part of Hong Kong life". It is questionable how much longer they will remain so. New public order laws place greater restrictions on demonstrations and the ability of organisers to stage them. The biggest test will come in June, when Hong Kong democracy activists stage the annual Tiananmen Square commemoration rally.