Mystery death of Lily Wong

Without a word of explanation Lily Wong and her American husband, Stuart, have become non-persons. For eight years they were among Hong Kong's best known cartoon strip characters, appearing daily in the South China Morning Post. Now they are gone and few here believe the stated reason of cost- saving.

In recent days the fictional Stuart, who is employed by an advertising agency, has been working for a Chinese client, engaged in the business of selling the organs of executed prisoners.

There is nothing fictional about the sale of prisoners' organs, but the strip's author, Larry Feign, did not expect last Thursday's edition to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hapless Stuart was depicted asking a Chinese prison officer what he would do when the jails run out of prisoners. ''By then'', says the official, ''it'll be 1997 and we got all the Democrats, and over a dozen cartoonists.''

The date for the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong is 1 July 1997 and fears for freedom of the press are running high. Martin Lee, the leader of the Democratic Party, yesterday wrote to the Post saying that the abolition of the strip ''looks to be the latest in a long line of what the Hong Kong Journalists' Association has identified as a general trend towards self-censorship''.

Any political motive in the closure of the Lily Wong strip was flatly denied last night by David Armstrong, the Post's editor-in-chief. He said that he was faced with rising editorial costs and a softening Hong Kong economy, forcing him to make a number of cuts.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation sold its controlling stake in the Post to the sugar and hotels tycoon Robert Kuok in 1993. At the time it was widely believed that the editorial line would change, as Mr Kuok has very good connections with the Chinese leadership.

However, the predicted changes have so far failed to materialise. Mr Armstrong said of the decision to end Mr Feign's contract: ''I have no idea of Robert's [Kuok's] view.'' He insists it was a decision taken by him alone.

Mr Feign, however, finds the cost savings explanation ''difficult to believe''. He argues that the Post is one of the most profitable newspapers in the world and if costs had been the real problem his offer to take a pay cut would have been accepted. He asked for permission to wind down the series, arguing that he was in any event being paid a month's salary. However, this was denied. Mr Armstrong said he did not want "to prolong the agony".

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