The plane carrying the delegation was surrounded by armed guards when it landed at Peking airport yesterday morning. Eleven gun-toting security police then entered the plane, identified the protesters and seized the special travel documents which allow Hong Kong's ethnic Chinese residents to travel to China as "compatriots" rather than foreigners.
The delegation was told to remain on the plane while the other passengers disembarked. They were then sent straight back to Hong Kong without being allowed to talk to anyone or deliver their petition.
China's response came as no surprise. At least three original members of the delegation were denied permission to travel to China and the authorities made it clear they would not receive the petition. This was a rare attempt by Hong Kong's democrats to make direct contact with Chinese officials in Peking.
"We are in a state of shock," said John Tse, a legislator, on returning from Peking. He said the Chinese authorities had boarded the plane carrying a three-page blacklist which contained their names.
Reports of a blacklist have often surfaced. A number of prominent activists, publishers and others have been told not to apply for permission to visit China because it would be turned down. One of those who was denied a visit to his family in China said yesterday: "The message is clear. They want me to get out of Hong Kong; they're saying I have to watch it after 1997."
The delegation returned to Hong Kong last night saying they had seen "the true face" of China's promises to respect the territory's autonomy and freedoms following next year's return to Chinese sovereignty.
In Tiananmen Square, at the centre of Peking, the scene of the notorious massacre of democracy protesters in 1989, a giant electronic clock ticks off the days and minutes until Hong Kong is reunited with the motherland. When the clock hit the 365-day point early yesterday morning, an officially organised rally broke into enthusiastic applause.
Back in Hong Kong there was little applause. The treatment of the delegation drew official criticism from its government, which urged China "to talk to all shades of opinion in Hong Kong".
Martin Lee, the leader of the Democratic Party, whose members were prominent in the delegation, said: "I'm compelled to conclude that Chinese leaders are not prepared to hear anything from Hong Kong that they don't want to hear."
However Allen Lee, a conservative legislator who acts as an adviser to China, described the events in Peking as nothing more than a "publicity stunt".
He said that people in Hong Kong would not be concerned about the way the Chinese authorities had handled the matter because it was a deliberate provocation.
Zhang Junsheng, the chief spokesman for China in Hong Kong, said the Chinese government had "the right to protect national security". He said the delegation had "already been told that they would have to face the consequences of their actions" but had insisted on "putting on a show. This will not be tolerated," he said.Reuse content