Hong Kong handover: `If it gets bad, I hope people like me will be around to scream'

Britain urged to put principles before trade
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"What's happening now is horrific. The rest of the world isn't excited - they just pay lip service."

Emily Lau is angry, and pessimistic. The 45-year-old leader of the Frontier, one of Hong Kong's main pro-democracy parties, believes that the chances of Hong Kong's not-yet democracy being allowed to develop are less than slim.

Ms Lau, who studied at the London School of Economics and worked as a journalist with the BBC and the Far Eastern Economic Review, is one of the most outspoken politicians in Hong Kong - and one of the most popular. In the 1995 elections, she gained more votes than any other politician in directly elected seats to Hong Kong's legislative council. Like other critics of Peking, she has been excluded from the new-look Legco, which is filled with pro-China appointees.

Yesterday, she was still sitting in the government offices that she has occupied for the past six years. But not for long. The authorities have already removed her name plaque from the door, following this week's handover of Hong Kong to China. The elected councillors are out; the unelected are moving in. Ms Lau has been ordered to vacate her office within the next few days.

She says that she does not "rule anything out" in the months to come - including the possibility that she and other leading democrats might be arrested, though it is more likely, she thinks, that lesser known figures could be picked off. "I'm very cynical. I wouldn't rule out any bad scenario. I just hope that people like us would be around to scream."

Ms Lau praises the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, for publicly stating last week that the new legislative council is in breach of the joint declaration, which agreed the terms of the handover. Mr Cook (like Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State) boycotted the swearing-in ceremony for the new legislature. But Ms Lau is unimpressed by the "disgraceful semi-boycott", which meant that Britain sent along Francis Cornish, Britain's most senior diplomat in the new Hong Kong, despite the Foreign Secretary's no-show. "Either you don't go, or you go. Otherwise you expose yourself to charges of being duplicitous."

Ms Lau insists that she is not being unrealistic, in asking Britain to take a tougher stance. In particular, she is unhappy at the triumphal announcements by Mr Cook and by Tony Blair, both of whom have announced that they will separately visit Peking. "I'm not saying break off diplomatic relations. But at least one should maybe say these visits should not go ahead. Why be so eager to rush into China? Then you've played all your cards."

This message, which Ms Lau has already personally delivered to British government leaders, is more than just a ritual ear-bashing delivered to foreign journalists. In a Letter to Hong Kong, to be broadcast in Hong Kong tomorrow, Ms Lau is scathing about what she sees as British inertia. "In the case of Britain, a country which has run Hong Kong for 156 years, many people here believe the British government would not lift a finger to help us, should we get into trouble. Like many other governments, London's top priority is getting a slice of the huge China market. We have also not forgotten that trade was the reason why the colony of Hong Kong was founded in the nineteenth century."

The British government's proclaimed new policy is that Hong Kong should be a "bridge, not a barrier". Ms Lau remains wary of the comforting alliteration. "I don't think anybody's saying that Hong Kong should be a barrier to anything. But the fear is that they just don't give a damn."

She criticises the new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, for the fact that his promise of new elections by next May - on an electoral system yet to be agreed - emerged only via conversations with foreign visitors. "He's told the foreigners. He hasn't bothered to tell the public."

If Ms Lau offers a ray of hope, it is that Hong Kongers, if pushed up against the wall, might yet be ready to resist. "My perception is that Hong Kong is not that punchy. But people rise up when they are suppressed."

For the moment, she points to the drip-drip effect of changes - school essays being marked down for being unenthusiastic about reunification with China, for example. "It's only the first days of July - and things are already worse. In the future, anything could happen."