The difficulties faced by media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying in his planned flotation of Next Media (Holdings) is a reminder that freedom of expression, particularly the freedom to criticise Chinese leaders, will not be tolerated. Last week Next Media threatened to take legal action against Sun Hung Kai International for deciding not to sponsor its plans for a stock exchange listing. Next said the financial services group cited 'understood pressure' as the reason for pulling out. Mr Lai's business has paid a hefty price for his outspoken criticisms of Chinese leaders, including premier Li Peng whom he denounced in 1994 as a 'turtle egg'. Although Mr Lai's latest travail is no surprise, it is a sign that free speech could soon be a thing of the past. Next Media's trouble was revealed on the day Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa told CNN it might be unlawful for Hong Kong people to make 'slanderous, derogative remarks and attacks' against Chinese leaders after the handover. Mr Tung's comment was a repetition of a similar threat made by Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen last year. Most news media dutifully reported what Mr Tung said but did not present opposing views. The local media's tendency for self-censorship was highlighted by United States Consul General Richard Boucher in his recent speech in Washington, in which he expressed reservations about the future of press freedom. Mr Boucher said he was told by media people that China would retaliate for unfavourable reporting or editorials by swinging advertising dollars away to more compliant competitors. Besides journalists, fund managers and analysts are also coming under increasing pressure to exercise self-censorship. Some have been sacked while others have been asked by senior management to tone down criticism of mainland firms. The damaging phenomenon of self-censorship, which signifies a terrified community, permeates the entire colony. Many people dare not say anything critical of Beijing in public for fear of dire economic and, or, political consequences. This is what Sun Hung Kai International means by 'understood pressure'. Apart from encouraging Hong Kong people to stifle criticisms of the Chinese Government, the Chinese leadership is eager to assure the local people, but particularly the business sector, that there will be no drastic changes triggered off by the death of Deng Xiaoping . Like Britain, China wants to project the image that it will be 'business as usual' after June 31. Hence they are prepared to risk condemnation by setting up the provisional legislature and deciding to amend laws relating to civil liberties because they know the business community has scant regard for democracy and human rights. On the other hand, business people would like to see a smooth transition for senior civil servants, thus the Chinese Government has reluctantly decided to permit all senior officials in the Patten administration to stay and work for the Special Administrative Region government. However, when the foreign media are gone, a reshuffle is bound to take place. Then only loyal supporters such as Elsie Leung Oi-sie would be appointed to key government posts. Ms Leung was made secretary for justice to succeed Attorney-General Jeremy Mathews. A solicitor, Ms Leung is a delegate to the National People's Congress and a founding member of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. Immediately after her appointment, Ms Leung said Hong Kong people would not be allowed to shout 'down with Li Peng' in future just like they can't shout 'down with the Queen' now. She was criticised by the legal profession for her ignorance. Ms Leung's appointment, mainly prompted by political considerations, points ominously to the way China intends to run Hong Kong.