Lee attacks not hurting freedom of speech: Tang

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2007, 12:00am

The chief secretary yesterday rejected criticism by a United States newspaper that attacks on veteran democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming by pro-Beijing groups were eroding freedom of speech in the city.

'Since the handover, the level of freedom of speech has not deteriorated; in fact, it has improved,' Henry Tang Ying-yen said in Beijing.

'Otherwise, a lot of Lee Chu-ming's remarks couldn't be publicised.'

He was responding to a commentary by The Wall Street Journal criticising the Hong Kong government for failing to defend Mr Lee over comments he made in an article in the newspaper two weeks ago.

Mr Lee had called on world leaders such as US President George W. Bush to press for improvements in China's human rights situation through next year's Beijing Olympics.

Critics from groups supportive of the central government called Mr Lee a 'traitor' for inviting foreign interference in China's internal affairs.

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a commentary describing the verbal assault on Mr Lee as having 'the flavour of a Cultural Revolution struggle session'.

Mr Tang is the highest government official to respond to the controversy. He has said the Olympic Games should not be politicised.

Members of The Frontier yesterday protested outside the headquarters of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) against what it called 'savage criticisms' of Mr Lee.

Frontier legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing said the verbal attacks were an attack on freedom of expression and resembled the political struggle during the Cultural Revolution.

The DAB said The Frontier was 'confounding right and wrong'.

The party accused Mr Lee of encouraging the US administration to pressure Beijing and interfere with China's internal affairs.

It said Mr Lee had distorted freedom of speech and insulted public opinion in saying there had been concerted efforts in targeting him and that the criticisms were related to the Legco by-election.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong media reported that a six-member panel of senior government officials had been set up to interview candidates for deputy secretaries.

But Mr Tang said the government had not yet officially started the recruitment exercise. 'We'll only start the recruitment when the Legislative Council endorses [the creation of the positions] and its Finance Committee approves the funding.'

A spokesman said that the government had not invited chambers of commerce or organisations of other sectors to provide name lists.

Mr Tang also said that the State Environmental Protection Administration was very supportive of Hong Kong and Guangdong's co-operation on emission trade.

He was on the second day of his first trip to Beijing as chief secretary.