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Nearly four years after its handover to China, Hong Kong's autonomy and commitment to human rights under the "one country, two systems" formula are facing some pivotal tests. The former British colony must decide how to deal with the Falun Gong spiritual meditation group, and how to respond to China's detention of Hong Kong-based academics.

On May 8, President Jiang Zemin of China is due in Hong Kong to speak at a major business conference. Members of Falun Gong are expected to stage protests against Beijing's fierce crackdown on the group. If Mr. Jiang is embarrassed by the protests before an international audience, there is concern that Hong Kong will be subject to intense pressure from Beijing to ban Falun Gong, as China has done.

Hong Kong officials have given mixed signals about Falun Gong's status. In February, Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, declared that Falun Gong had "characteristics of an evil cult" and needed watching. He later appeared to back off. But Regina Ip, Hong Kong's security chief, branded Falun Gong a "devious organization" responsible for "heretical" views, echoing Beijing's sharp rhetoric.

On April 26, Mr. Tung again attacked Falun Gong, saying its planned protests during Mr. Jiang's visit were unacceptable, against the interests of Hong Kong and "a deliberate move to undermine" Hong Kong's relations with Beijing. Some in Hong Kong fear that Mr. Jiang's visit could be used as a pretext for enactment of an anti- subversion law, provided for by Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, to ban Falun Gong; alternatively, human rights activists fear the passage of an "anti-cult" law like one on the mainland.

When questioned about this, Bob Alcock, Hong Kong's solicitor general, stated flatly, "there is no pressure to use Article 23 against Falun Gong." He also assured me that the group is "legal in Hong Kong so long as they abide by Hong Kong's laws."

Rather than threatening Falun Gong, Mr. Tung should make a clear public statement guaranteeing the right of Falun Gong members to protest peacefully and to operate in Hong Kong without official interference or restrictions.

Among Hong Kong's academics, legislators and U.S. business executives, the detention of several China scholars on the mainland, including two based in Hong Kong, has set off alarm bells. Li Shaomin, a respected professor of business at City University of Hong Kong and a U.S. citizen, was picked up by the Chinese police when he went into Shenzhen on Feb. 25. The detention of Mr. Li, who also ran an Internet company in south China, remains unexplained.

Equally worrying is the case of Xu Zerong, an associate research professor and former legal resident of Hong Kong, who went to Guangdong Province in August and was detained by Chinese state security officials. There is no information on where he is being held.

If Hong Kong is totally powerless to protect its citizens from arbitrary arrest the minute they cross the border into the mainland, this poses a serious challenge to the idea of "one country, two systems." Cross-border academic exchanges and business ties are vital if Hong Kong is to continue to prosper and to help drive China's development.

Yet Hong Kong officials seemed strangely indifferent to the detentions. At a minimum, they should urgently press Beijing to clarify the legal status of the detained scholars.

With China set to join the World Trade Organization, Hong Kong's role is more crucial than ever as an example of how free markets and civil liberties can thrive together. But Hong Kong risks serious erosion of its international position if its government fails to protect the rights of its citizens.

Mike Jendrzejczyk is Washington Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.

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