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Early freedom for HK writer jailed in China

Hours after formally establishing a rival legislature to the British- run body still sitting in Hong Kong, China announced yesterday that it was releasing the colony's best known political prisoner, Xi Yang, a journalist for Ming Pao newspaper.

Mr Xi, sentenced to 12 years for espionage and acquiring state secrets, had served just over three years before being released on probation yesterday. He had been charged with obtaining information about interest rates and gold sales while on assignment in China. His jailing caused widespread protests in Hong Kong, where it was seen as an attack on press freedom and civil liberties.

It is extremely rare for prisoners in Mr Xi's position to be released early, and may be an attempt to win popular support in Hong Kong. Fears are rising about the threat to civil liberties posed by China's plans for the colony's Bill of Rights after it takes control on 1 July. Peking is also under fire for setting up its Provisional Legislature, which held its first meeting in the border town of Shenzhen yesterday.

The Governor, Chris Patten, has dismissed the Provisional Legislature as a "rather exotic debating society" with no legal standing in Hong Kong, which is why it was forced to go to Shenzhen. The new body's efforts to prove its democratic credentials were undermined, however, as soon as it tackled its first task: selecting a president to chair the 60 hand- picked members of the assembly. Lu Ping, the Chinese official responsible for Hong Kong affairs in Peking, asked for suggestions as to how this should be done. Several were made and quickly brushed aside by Mr Lu, who called on the members to endorse a plan already drawn up by officials. The members dutifully clapped.

They were then asked to nominate candidates. After a 15-minute recess two emerged: Andrew Wong, who chairs the existing legislature, and has been criticised for wanting to chair the rival body as well; and Rita Fan, a former member of the Governor's cabinet turned highly vocal supporter of the Chinese government.

Within minutes, printed forms bearing the names of the candidates were produced. Either China has the fastest printing presses in the world or the spontaneity of the process was in question.

Mrs Fan won, and bowed modestly. She built her political career as the advocate of a ruthless line on Vietnamese boat people before going on to work for the Emperor Group, one of the colony's most controversial companies, run by Albert Yeung, a man who only escaped adding to his criminal record thanks to the mass amnesia of witnesses in a recent trial.