For the past eight years, American cartoonist Larry Feign has enlivened the pages of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post with his hard-hitting comic strip The World of Lily Wong. Sparing no one, Feign took on both Beijing's autocrats and Hong Kong's ineffectual British governor, Christopher Francis Patten. But recently, Feign was sacked at the Post. Editor-in-chief David Armstrong denies that political pressure played a role and says the strip was the victim of a cost-cutting drive--though the paper is one of the world's most profitable. Whatever the reason, Feign's departure has heightened concerns about the fate of Hong Kong's press after the Chinese takeover in 1997.

If such fears are realized, Hong Kong could be a big loser. One of the reasons that so many international business executives have their offices in Hong Kong is to gain access to the flow of vital information on China. But that attraction could fade if Beijing shows little tolerance for negative press coverage. "If the rest of the world begins to perceive Hong Kong as just another Chinese city, then why do business in Hong Kong?" says one Hong Kong economist.

The battle over freedom of the press and information flows that is looming in Hong Kong will probably be played out in one form or another throughout the region. As Asia modernizes, demand is building in the growing middle class for more accurate information and more accountable government. Wide-open access to information is also increasingly essential for business. But moves toward more liberty are threatening to authoritarian governments that worry about losing control.

STIFF CHINESE SENTENCES. Hong Kong seems to be backtracking on what is permissible in public discourse at an inopportune time. Although they still offer less freedom than Hong Kong, the city's rivals for investment and status show signs of opening up. Taiwan, for instance, is experiencing an explosion in independent media. It now has more than 200 cable-TV stations, more than 30 unofficial radio stations, and scores of nongovernment newspapers. Even restrictive Singapore is linking up to the Internet, adding cable-TV channels, and luring foreign broadcasters to set up regional communications hubs.

Of course, Hong Kong hasn't lost the regional media lead yet. The Internet is flourishing there, and the colony has 22 Chinese-language newspapers as well as three English-language dailies. Outspoken publisher and retailer Jimmy Lai, a critic of China's communist leaders, is about to launch Apple Daily, which promises to be a lively new addition.

But at the same time, Beijing is already sending warnings by handing out stiff penalties to Hong Kong journalists who have fallen into their clutches. For example, Xi Yang, a reporter for Ming Pao, an independent Hong Kong paper, received a 12-year prison sentence in 1994 for revealing such supposed "state secrets" as interest-rate changes and international gold transactions. Local journalists also say Beijing officials contact key editors and publishers, either directly or through third parties, when they are displeased with a story. "My biggest fear is that even before 1997, China imposes its own standards on us," says Ivan Tong, Ming Pao's deputy editor-in-chief and chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Assn.

Local reporters shouldn't expect much support from Hong Kong's business tycoons, who have already come to terms with China and don't want to upset its leaders. Many analysts expressed concern when Malaysian-Chinese billionaire Robert Kuok, who has sizable stakes in China, bought the South China Morning Post from Rupert Murdoch. Armstrong, however, says Kuok doesn't participate in any way in editorial decisions. Last year, Murdoch, owner of Hong Kong-based Star TV, removed the BBC, which has angered China with its probing reports, from Star's northern broadcast range in an effort to expand his satellite-TV business in China.

But China hasn't squeezed the life out of the Hong Kong press yet. The Eastern Express, an English-language daily founded in 1994, is interested in hiring Feign. The cartoonist says he isn't sure if he wants to stay in Hong Kong. But if he does, his strip will serve as a good barometer of press freedoms in these sensitive times.

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