The two women - Liu Yijung, 29, a journalist who said her poems had circulated among pro-democracy activists in Peking's Tiananmen Square before the June 1989 crackdown, and Lin Lin, 24, a computer programmer who sheltered her friend before they both escaped to Hong Kong - had been due to appear in the High Court yesterday for another hearing in their fight against deportation. Their lawyers did not learn that their clients had left for Canada until after they arrived at the court.
Human rights organisations said Ms Liu ran a newspaper on Hainan island which was investigated by police in 1989 after it carried articles criticising government corruption. She later wrote poems supporting the pro-democracy movement. Her lawyers had appealed to Chinese exiles to come forward with copies of her poetry, because the women had been robbed of possessions and documents during their escape.
The uproar over the two women shed light on the question of how and when political asylum is granted in Hong Kong, an area the authorities prefer to keep secret for fear of antagonising China. According to Hong Kong newspapers, about 30 Chinese dissidents have been given asylum since the Tiananmen massacre. Some 800 people are reported to have sought asylum in that period, of whom about half were returned to China as illegal immigrants. The rest were given permission to remain while seeking another country to take them.
The Hong Kong authorities do not give reasons for their decisions on whether or not to grant asylum, nor is there any right of appeal. In the cases of Ms Liu and Ms Lin, it appears that they were not considered prominent enough in the pro-democracy movement. The authorities feared that if they were given asylum, thousands of people on the periphery of the movement might also be eligible.
In Britain, the Home Office refused to accept the women as refugees, or to give reasons for its decision, and upheld Hong Kong's administrative orders to deport them. The only legal route open to them was to apply in the colony's High Court for a judicial review of the decision.