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China Jails Hong Kong Democrat

Candidate's arrest causes media uproar and raises suspicions that Beijing is trying to influence the territory's elections.

August 18, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The arrest of a pro-democracy Hong Kong candidate in mainland China on charges of soliciting a prostitute touched off a media furor in the former British colony Tuesday and fueled suspicion that Beijing was trying to influence next month's legislative election.

The uproar broke out Tuesday morning after several papers published front-page reports that candidate Ho Wai-to had been arrested Friday in the mainland province of Guangdong and sentenced almost immediately to six months in a labor camp.

Given that such cases are usually handled with a fine, some analysts said the treatment of Ho was odd -- especially because Hong Kong apparently was not notified and because the arrest comes at a time when Beijing's handpicked allies in Hong Kong are expected to lose support in the Sept. 12 legislative elections.

"A lot of people feel Ho's arrest is a setup," said Liu Kin-ming, editorial page editor with the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper. "Six months is quite extraordinary."

Officials with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the ruling party sympathetic to Beijing, declined to comment on the case, as did Chan Kam-lam, their candidate running against Ho in the Kowloon East constituency.

Ho's wife added to suspicions about the case Tuesday when she said mainland Chinese authorities had brought a prostitute to her husband's hotel room in Guangdong's Dongguan region, beat him and then denied him food and water until he signed a confession.

"Democrat Jailed After Frame-Up With Prostitute," blared the headline of the South China Morning Post. "Suspected of Paying for Sex, Ho Wai-To Sentenced to Six Months in Labor Camp," said the Ming Bao daily.

"This is either a juicy little sex scandal, which the Hong Kong papers love, or a political scandal, which the Hong Kong papers love," said Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. "There's nothing like having conspiracy, sex and shame all wrapped up into one."

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Chinese security officials in Dongguan denied entrapping Ho and said he was detained as part of routine vice raids undertaken Thursday and Friday. They said that Ho admitted giving money to the woman, identified only by the last name of Chao, and that they had no idea Ho was a pro-democracy candidate when they arrested him.

The scandal has fueled conspiracy theories in which Ho is viewed as an inadvertent player in mainland power struggles between forces aligned with former President Jiang Zemin -- who retains substantial influence over China's military and Beijing's policies on Hong Kong and Taiwan -- and those aligned with the more moderate leadership team of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Some people suspect that Ho's arrest was engineered to humiliate the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong and thereby undercut Hu and Wen. But others believe it was engineered to spark a backlash against pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong associated with Jiang.

Political analysts say Ho, who was facing two stronger candidates, had little chance of winning even before the uproar. Under Hong Kong election rules, he is automatically disqualified if he is serving a jail term on election day.

Even if Chinese authorities did not engineer Ho's arrest, the reaction to the case underscores how much goodwill Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong have lost among residents after a series of policy and public relations missteps.

These include mishandling the economy and the SARS epidemic, a heavy-handed campaign in late 2003 condemning democracy supporters as "anti-patriotic" and "anti-Motherland," the recent resignations of local columnists and radio talk show hosts who said they were harassed for exercising their rights to free speech and overt pressure on Hong Kong businesspeople working in China to vote a pro-Beijing line back home.

"We don't have a very clear picture with this Ho case," said Cheng Yu-shek, a social studies professor at Hong Kong City University. "When the stakes are high, though, there's a general feeling that Beijing could do something drastic."

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