The closing

THE closure of the Kuomintang-owned Hongkong Times this week not only leaves the already dwindling KMT followers in Hongkong in disarray, but also has wider implications for Taipei's future relationship with Hongkong and Beijing.

The first hint of a shutdown of the KMT mouthpiece came last April from a senior party official after an evaluation of the 43-year-old newspaper, which had been losing some HK$20 million a year.

The report also noted it would be costly to rejuvenate the publication, which it concluded had fulfilled its ''historical mission'' and could be replaced by other Taiwanese newspapers and magazines available in Hongkong.

The matter dragged on in the face of fierce opposition from Hongkong's pro-Taipei forces, notably director of the Free China Review, Miss Suzie Chiang.

Insiders said it was not until recent weeks, after Premier Hau Pei-tsun's stepping down was settled, that the recommendation to wind up the Hongkong Times was put forward to President Mr Lee Teng-hui for approval.

Taipei's top representative in Hongkong, Mr John Ni, who heads the Chung Hwa Travel Service, and Taipei-appointed managing director of the newspaper, Miss Gertrude Su, both stressed that it was solely a business consideration.

But local pro-KMT leaders contended that the Hongkong Times was more than a business establishment, and the KMT should take into account the invisible benefits of maintaining a newspaper in Hongkong.

When the Hongkong Times was launched in August 1948, it was conceived as a propaganda machine which would complement the KMT forces in Taiwan to stage a comeback on the mainland.

Although that goal had not been realised, the Hongkong Times had served the function of promoting Taipei's policies and unifying overseas Chinese over the past 43 years, said the general secretary of the pro-Taipei Chinese Culture Association, Mr Cheung Hon-chung.

In the 60s, the Hongkong Times sold up to 50,000 copies a day and still maintained about 20,000 copies in the early 80s. But circulation has shrunk to about 4,000 copies a day in recent years.

Observers attributed the loss of readership partially to the growing disillusionment among traditional pro-KMT forces in Hongkong with the changes taking place in Taiwan over the last decade.

By rough calculation, there are more than 100,000 Hongkong residents who can be identified as pro-Taipei, including mainlanders who fled communist rule in 1949, Hongkongers educated in Taiwan and students of the local right-wing schools.

''These people were already in discord with Taipei in the past few years over what has taken place on the island. They increasingly felt that the KMT they used to submit their loyalty to was no longer the one they were familiar with,'' said Mr Wong Yuk-man, veteran media professional and publisher of the independent News File magazine.

''At such a critical moment, the closure of the Hongkong Times dealt another blow to their expectations of the KMT,'' said Mr Wong. ''The KMT no longer has the credibility to operate in Hongkong effectively.

''The maintenance of the Hongkong Times had a symbolic gesture that the KMT still cared about Hongkong. Now the closure of the newspaper amounts to a declaration that it has given up the territory.'' Already the younger generation of the pro-Taipei forces in Hongkong are organising a campaign to fill the vacuum left by the paper's withdrawal.

For Hongkong as a whole, the winding up of the Hongkong Times might not mean much. But media professionals are concerned that the confidence of working journalists over the freedom of the press might be undermined.

Co-existence of the pro-Taipei newspaper, together with pro-Beijing and other commercially-oriented newspapers, has been regarded as a symbol of that freedom.

''Even the KMT is unwilling to stand up against the communists. How can we expect local journalists to speak out without fear? The dark shadow will inevitably lead to more self-censorship,'' said Mr Wong.

Taiwanese officials also took pains to stress that the shutdown did not mean a change in the Government's policy towards Hongkong.

But Mr Wong believes the incident highlights a continuing shift of Taipei's perception of Hongkong from an outpost against communism to an intermediary to do business with the mainland.

''When the all-important propaganda machinery is withdrawn, can you believe there will be no change in policy?'' asked Mr Wong.

While Beijing has hinted on a number of occasions that the Hongkong Times could continue to publish in Hongkong after 1997, mainland officials have so far remained silent on the closure.

Privately, Beijing might even be disappointed. It might have liked the KMT mouthpiece to stay in Hongkong after 1997 as evidence of its adherence to the ''one country, two systems'' principle.

It also hopes that Taipei, after witnessing the successful transition of Hongkong, will come to accept a similar arrangement for the island for the eventual re-unification of the nation.

Taipei categorically rejects that idea. Apart from casting doubts on its feasibility, Taipei has also accused Beijing of trying to downgrade the KMT authorities into a local government.

By withdrawing the Hongkong Times well before 1997, Taipei is killing two birds with one stone.

On the one hand, the newspaper will not be used as proof of the success of the ''one country, two systems'' policy, and on the other, it avoids being seen as an indication of Taipei's acceptance of the concept.

''The communists should feel sorry for the closure of the Hongkong Times,'' said Mr Wong.