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HK Chinese attack Peking on free speech

Britain and China, Hong Kong's incoming and outgoing sovereign powers, yesterday were subjected to unexpected attacks from the colony's leaders, which will increase disquiet some nine months before the transfer of power.

Breaking the recent practice of refraining from criticism of the Chinese government, politicians and newspapers which generally support Peking reacted sharply to comments by Qian Qichen, China's vice-premier and foreign minister, who gave an interview stating there would be limits on free speech in Hong Kong because China would not tolerate criticism of its leaders. He specifically ruled out "political activities which directly interfere in the affairs of the mainland of China", such as the traditional rallies which commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Mr Qian, who holds direct responsibility for Hong Kong affairs within the Chinese leadership, also made it clear that dissidents "should leave the territory if they can do so". He repeated previously stated strictures about the media, reaffirming that it "can put forward criticism but no rumours or lies". Yesterday his comments were reinforced by Shen Guofeng, the foreign ministry spokesman in Peking, who stressed that new laws would prevent full freedom of expression.

Most of the colony's newspapers urged Mr Qian to exercise restraint in making comments like these. Even the leading candidates for post of Chief Executive, or head of the incoming government, were notably cautious in giving their endorsement of the Foreign Minister's views.

Selina Chow, a leader of the pro-Peking Liberal Party, said protests against the Chinese government should be allowed. "Whatever is lawful should not be dictated by concerns outside the legal framework of Hong Kong," she stated. The outspoken pro-democracy legislator Emily Lau said that "people are now feeling jittery, especially in the wake of arrests of political activists in the mainland." She believed that Mr Qian was performing "a great disservice" and that he was trying to "intimidate" the media.

Cheung Man-kwong, a legislator and organiser of the annual Tiananmen Square commemorative events, said there was no question of them being cancelled next year.