'Independent' is a difficult word in Chinese

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"Even Chinese officials say they want different voices in Hong Kong," says Lucy Chan. "They say that when Chairman Mao's voice was the only one heard in China, there was chaos. I try to remember that when I am frightened."

Ms Chan, a tiny, intense woman in her early 40s, is the political editor of Apple Daily, Hong Kong's most outspoken newspaper. Published from a garment factory on the fringes of the city, it relies mainly on crime and showbiz stories to satisfy its Cantonese readers, but it also prints political scoops no one else would touch. The paper's sarcastic style was captured in one headline from its handover edition, "Last Crime Committed in Colonial Hong Kong" - because, of course, there will be no wrongdoing under the new order.

"Our readers lay a heavy responsibility on us. They keep saying, 'Don't become like other papers.' When we reported accurately that people had turned out to welcome the Chinese troops, I got a lot of phone calls accusing us of going soft."

From its foundation in 1995 by the eccentric retailing millionaire, Jimmy Lai, Apple Daily's circulation has shot up, making it Hong Kong's second biggest-selling paper. At a time when most other news outlets are censoring themselves to fit in with the Chinese-backed administration which took over Hong Kong last week, it will be one test of whether the rights and freedoms inherited from Britain are surviving.

Ms Chan's namesake, Anson Chan, 57, is another: head of the civil service under the former Governor, Chris Patten, and now under his successor, Tung Chee-hwa, she is an important symbol of continuity. Anson Chan and her trademark dazzling smile were seen at all the handover events, but recently she threatened publicly to quit if she was forced to go against her principles. Behind this is believed to be her distaste at some of the people surrounding Mr Tung, most of them businessmen like himself. "All she has is her reputation and her high standing in the community," says one source. "She has absolutely nothing to lose by walking off the job, and Tung knows it."

Mrs Chan and her fellow carryovers from the British administration have been called "canaries in a coal mine". On a neighbouring perch would be Martin Lee, 58, a courtly QC who leads the Democratic Party. Last Friday he was clearing out the office assigned to him as a member of the Legislative Council - the Democrats, the largest party after the election held under Mr Patten's reforms, have been excluded from the temporary legislature appointed by the Chinese to reverse those reforms.

The party says it will contest the next elections, due in the second quarter of 1998, and demonstrate peacefully in the meantime, though it has threatened civil disobedience if it is obstructed, especially on the ninth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June next year - a date to watch. The centrepiece of this year's demonstration was the Pillar of Shame, a monument to the victims of repression in China, but the organisers had difficulty finding a company willing to move it from the quayside. Afterwards the students' union at Hong Kong University offered it a site, over the objections of the university authorities, who said it was "too heavy". A potential clash was averted by agreeing to display the sculpture temporarily; whether it finds a permanent home remains to be seen.

Many believe the Democrats are less in danger than organisations calling for reform in China, such as the Trotskyist move- ment, April 5 Action, or the ponderously named Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, main organiser of Tiananmen commemorations, but Mr Lee says: "If anyone is deprived of their rights, we will speak out."

Internationally known Martin Lee is extremely unlikely to face arrest, but in Singapore figures like him have been bankrupted or disbarred by huge libel judgments. The ideal vehicle for such harassment in Hong Kong is the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which has drastic powers of search, arrest and questioning. Civil servants with unexplained wealth are pre- sumed guilty of corruption unless they can prove otherwise. Mr Tung's office has already caused disquiet by proposing to drop the "Independent" from its name - a difficult word to translate into Chinese, it was omitted from the Basic Law, China's constitution for Hong Kong.

"Under China, the rule of law in Hong Kong will turn into rule by law, with the law reflecting the ideas of the Chinese leadership," says Han Dongfang. He should know: jailed as a "subversive" after Tiananmen for trying to organise independent trade unions, he was allowed out for medical treatment in the US, but tried to get back into China several times, once reaching Guangzhou before being arrested and illegally deported from his own country. Now 33, he decided to wait in Hong Kong for China to come to him.

"It is impossible to stop Hong Kong from influencing China," says Mr Han. But Robin Munro, local director of the US-based Human Rights Watch/Asia, believes China will try. "It wants tools available to deal with subversives in Hong Kong, and with the catch-all 'national security' provision written into the Basic Law it has them. It hopes everyone gets the message here to act more carefully and censor themselves. That will arrest the development of democracy and civil society, or at least slow it down. If there is a major challenge in Hong Kong, China can handle it."

Nobody doubts that Mr Tung is sincere in promising to protect Hong Kong's liberties, or that the Special Administrative Region will remain more free than China or even Singapore for the foreseeable future. But everyone will be watching to see whether the "canaries" get enough oxygen to keep singing.