ZHOU NAN, China's de facto ambassador to Hong Kong, last week disappointed news media luminaries by canceling a karaoke (singing) party at a posh villa and rushing off to Beijing on official business.
Before leaving, however, Mr. Zhou's office gave the would-be crooners even greater cause for chagrin: When it comes to the media, he indicated, communist officials will soon call the tune.
Mainland officials said last week that the government-financed Radio and Television Hong Kong (RTHK) will be a mouthpiece for the communist regime after China regains control of the colony in 1997. The comments worsened public anxiety that Beijing will deny Hong Kong citizens freedom of expression and other basic rights in five years.
"China's comments confirm our worst fears about the loss of editorial independence after 1997," says Cliff Bale, secretary of the RTHK program staff union.
The effort by mainland officials to thwart a Hong Kong initiative to partially privatize RTHK also defies a 1984 Sino-British agreement ensuring the territory autonomy in internal matters.
"What is now happening is that there is a Sino-British condominium" in Hong Kong's governance, legislator Emily Lau says.
Mainland interference in the future of RTHK "is very disturbing because it foreshadows that Hong Kong will have very, very little autonomy before and after 1997," says Ms. Lau, a former chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
Under a plan to "corporatize" RTHK, the Hong Kong government would maintain close financial and administrative control of the station. It would provide at least 80 percent of the station's budget and require RTHK to earn the remainder through sponsorship and sales. The government hopes the scheme will induce the station to face market forces and streamline itself.
The station's current status should be maintained, Zhang Junsheng, vice director of the New China News Agency, which serves as China's embassy in Hong Kong, said last week. Such an arrangement would ensure a smooth transfer of power between Britain and China, Mr. Zhang said.
Hong Kong officials sought to dispel any notion that the mainland will scuttle the territory's plans.
"It is certainly up to the [Hong Kong] government to make the final decision" on RTHK, said Michael Sze Cho-cheung, Hong Kong's secretary for constitutional affairs.
China might be taking a hard stand against a corporatized RTHK in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations next month with Britain, political observers in Hong Kong say. The talks will cover many issues in Hong Kong, including the RTHK's future.
The prospect of RTHK becoming a herald for the communist regime has renewed concern among liberal lawmakers and journalists that China will muzzle the news media after 1997 by using controls that Britain has legislated but not enforced.
"We enjoy a free press, but it is at the tolerance of the administration because they have many Draconian powers that they have not chosen to exercise," says Ms. Lau.
Among the laws is a requirement that television stations submit news footage to Hong Kong government censors.