Nearly 900 followers of a quasi-religious group banned in the mainland gathered here last weekend in what was the biggest public rebuke to China since this former British colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty 2-1/2 years ago.
They assembled in downtown Hong Kong and marched peacefully behind yellow protest banners to the headquarters of the New China News Agency, one of Beijing's official outposts in the territory, where they silently meditated and left petitions and letters.
In these missives Falun Gong members said they wanted to clear up any misunderstandings about the nature of their movement and called on the Chinese government to cancel its arrest warrant for their leader, Li Hongzhi, who lives in New York.
This event - and how Hong Kong authorities have responded to it - is likely to clarify and test the limits of Hong Kong's relationship with Beijing under the so-called "one country, two systems."
A similar demonstration on the mainland would have been quickly quashed, the protesters hauled away in a police van for detention and possible charges. Since July, Beijing has banned the Falun Gong as being potentially disruptive to the social order. Several leaders have been given prison terms.
Here in Hong Kong, there was no crackdown, because of the freedoms, including those of assembly and religious expression, that are permitted under "one-country two systems." But not since pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 has Hong Kong been a base to protest mainland practices. "They're trying to test the limits," says political commentator Lau Shi-kai of the Chinese University.
The Falun Gong conference came close on the heels of a decision of the territory's Court of Final Appeal that was widely seen as eroding the territory's judicial independence. It ruled that the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature, had final say in interpreting the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution.
The court effectively reversed a ruling it had made last January, when it declared unconstitutional an ordinance restricting the rights of mainland Chinese to live in Hong Kong. Fearing that the ruling would lead to unlimited migration and strain social services, the government asked the NPC to make a ruling.
The Basic Law clearly states that the NPC has ultimate interpretative authority. But the charter also delegates to Hong Kong's court independent final judgment on local matters. The difficulty arises in deciding matters, like immigration, that impinge on both local and national interests.
The authorities promise that they will request interpretations only rarely, claiming that the migrants case was exceptional because of the social dangers poised by virtually unlimited migration from the mainland.
On the issue itself, the government's basic position has wide public support.
But the worry is that future government will be strongly tempted to go running to Beijing every time they lose in court. "We don't know when a case will be 'exceptional'," says Mak Yin-ting, president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. She worries that the government might someday want to "reinterpret" press freedoms.
"One-country, two systems is still healthy," says Professor Lau. "What bothers people is a Hong Kong government that often seems too eager to please China, rather than the Chinese government trying to interfere in Hong Kong affairs."
Public opinion polls show that Hong Kong people by wide margins think that Beijing has acted correctly since the handover on July 1, 1997. Similar polls give China's leaders high ratings. President Jiang Zemin's are in the 75 percent range, those of Premier Zhu Rongji even higher.
But only about 39 percent approve of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's performance. Indeed, his ratings are falling just as the territory is emerging from economic recession.
The chief is often seen here as being overly deferential to Beijing and too slow to defend Hong Kong's freedoms. He sternly warned Falun Gong demonstrators to obey the law. He went on to say that the demonstrators should not "act against the interests of China."
That led the English-language South China Morning Post to speculate editorially whether Mr. Tung was merely speaking in "preemptive obeisance to Beijing," or whether he might use the Falun Gong demonstration to introduce stricter laws.
Chinese authorities have long worried that foreigners might use Hong Kong as a "base" to "subvert" the mainland regime. That the weekend drew many practitioners from Australia, Japan, and Europe no doubt rekindled these fears, even though a sect spokesman said, "we have no intention to make Hong Kong a base."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society