Off the airwaves in Hong Kong

Allen Lee told Parliament last week that he resigned as a radio host after a threatening call from a Beijing official.

Allen Lee is a plain-talking businessman, an establishment figure under both British and Chinese rule. He's a delegate to Beijing and knows Jiang Zemin, but has loads of "street cred" as a radio host in a town that loves the gab. He's of late a populist hero, giving voice to many who want direct elections and more democracy. But he does so as a bridge-builder, a moderate, a patriot.

Yet none of this seemed to matter when Mr. Lee suddenly gave up his No.1-rated "Teacup in a Storm" radio show May 19. Lee instead became the third pro- democracy radio critic to quit the airwaves in less than a month.

His stated reason: a 10:30 p.m. phone call from an unnamed Beijing official who indirectly threatened his wife and daughter. Lee says he resisted months of badgering to leave or tone down his show. After the phone call, he quit within three hours.

Lee's 2,000-word rationale for leaving, which he read in the Hong Kong Parliament last week, has in some ways signaled the arrival of a new element in the local political culture - fear. While not visible on the surface of this busy cosmopolitan city, intimidation tactics seem aimed at influential figures who speak openly and advocate change in the local Beijing-backed government.

That Lee, not a radical, could not escape the pressure has brought a chill to the pro-democracy camp here, say experts. "Allen is not just anybody. He has impeccable credentials and he plays by the book. He has no linkage to money problems, a colorful history, or triads [underground gangs]," says Christine Loh of the Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange. "Yet [Allen] has told us he left his show in a matter of hours. That's a clear statement about how hot the kitchen is getting; Hong Kong people are now drawing the conclusion that these cases ... are linked."

A variety of carefully tailored types of intimidation have emerged recently. Threats of violence, retribution against businesses, anonymous phone calls, and warning graffiti on offices, even of moderates, have created what former chief secretary Anson Chan called a "gloomy" atmosphere in a town where such affairs usually stay in the criminal underworld. Some feel the aim is to counter the "people power" movement that sprang up last summer after the SARS crisis, and after 500,000 Hong Kong residents marched to oppose a draconian new security law.

In this media-saturated city, radio hosts occupy a highly influential role - a cross between preacher and pop star. Call-in shows have huge audiences and are a barometer of both public opinion and coming political agendas.

Talk-show host Albert Cheng quit his show in May after threats of violence took him "to the brink of a breakdown," he said. "I don't feel that I can continue [my show.]" Mr. Cheng said the government of Hong Kong could not guarantee his safety.

Wang Yuk-man, whose show "Close Encounters of the Political Kind" had the highest evening ratings, failed to show up for his program May 13. His whereabouts are still unknown. Mr. Wang was beaten up in public two months earlier by suspected triad gangs, and red paint was splashed on his noodle shop.

In the past year, Hong Kong protest marches and broad local sentiment for direct elections that could unseat China's handpicked leaders have greatly worried Beijing. The mainland, with its communist party rule, is not set up to allow the kind of open society that Hong Kong enjoys under its special "autonomous" status.

This winter, after months of silence, Chinese propaganda organs began outlining "patriotic" standards that future Hong Kong leaders must meet. Then Beijing officials announced that China had the last word on any future interpretation of the Basic Law that governs Hong Kong. Critics say Beijing's claim weakens the meaning of Hong Kong's vaunted "autonomy."

In April, Chinese officials made it further clear that Hong Kong would not be allowed any direct election of officials in 2007 or 2008 - the main demand of the democratic camp here. A week later, Chinese warships sailed through the Hong Kong harbor.

The tactics also seem aimed at influencing elections next September, which could embolden democrats should they score highly. To what degree the intimidation is orchestrated inside or outside Hong Kong is unclear. Beijing denies any involvement, and last week a close colleague of president Hu Jintao arrived here to open a special exhibit featuring the Buddha's finger - seen as a peace offering.

Until Lee publicly stated he was phoned by a Beijing official there was no hard evidence or linkage to any mainland groups in the new campaign of intimidation.

"There's been an environment of intimidation against the democratic camp," says Michael Davis, a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong. "But until Allen's testimony there's been nothing concrete about pressure from China."

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