Events mark more than death of a gangster

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 January, 1999, 12:00am

The big, unspoken question in post-handover Hong Kong is whether democracy is dead.

Why did billionaire mobster Cheung Tze-keung, nicknamed Big Spender, dominate the headlines in the last few months of 1998? Westerners may wonder why the face of the unshaven gangster filled the front pages of the Chinese- and the English-language press.

The question is not about life and death, but one of democracy.

The list of Cheung and his gang's evil deeds is long - there were bombings and kidnappings, most notably of tycoon Li Ka-shing's son.

Cheung's is a story of greed gone overboard - a smart young man who has used his talents the wrong way.

It is easy to seethe with anger over the lives of the innocent that have been damaged or lost because of Cheung's greed.

But in the end, the anger is really about the way in which Cheung and his men have been tried and executed - it is a question of democracy.

The lack of outrage voiced by the Hong Kong Government and the public is disappointing. And the lack of order and cruelty in China is frightening.

If Cheung and his men could be tried for crimes that were not committed in the place of the trial and given a trial without rights, anyone could be next. In the West, one is not convicted if there is reasonable doubt.

In this case, Cheung was barred from talking to his lawyer. He was not read his rights because the moment he stepped across the border he didn't have any. He only had 30 minutes with his two young sons and was not allowed to touch them.

The wives, children and other relatives of the deceased were not permitted to see the bodies of their loved ones, and the Guangzhou officials refused to tell them where the executions were held.

It is assumed that those executed were taken to hospitals where their body parts were sold. Even after death, democracy does not exist.

Cheung's trial is timely amid the debate over the death penalty in the United States. A forum was held in Chicago recently, on the eve of the 500th execution in America. Death-row prisoners argued that they have rights and that many have not been fairly tried.

The point is that such debate can exist in the West. Murderers and rapists can write letters to the media, talk to their lawyers, and their loved ones can watch their execution.

The fate of Cheung and his men was determined the moment they were pulled in by mainland officials. On the mainland, the basic rights enjoyed by those on death row in the US do not exist. We in post-handover Hong Kong must be wary.

Cheung may have been bad, but he and the others accused deserved a fair trial in the place where their crimes were committed. If we allow one exception, there can easily be a second and a third.

Cheung's fate is like a crack in a dam which will slowly spread - it represents the loss of something far greater than the death of a gangster.

AMY WU North Point