Dozens of Taiwanese Falun Gong practitioners were barred from entering Hong Kong recently, serving as a reminder that the city's constitutional freedoms are ultimately subject to Beijing's authority, according to outside analysts and Falun Gong activists.
"This cannot be taken as an isolated thing for the Falun Gong group, because the Falun Gong is an indicator for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong," Taiwanese radio reporter Ko I-Chun said in Washington last week.
"The way they were treated could be applied to any group."
Ms. Ko, a Falun Gong practitioner and one of those detained, said all of the group's members had valid visas for entering Hong Kong but were stopped between June 24 and June 30.
Hong Kong immigration officials at the international airport were accompanied by plainclothes security agents whom Ms. Ko said she identified by their accents as coming from mainland China.
Some of the travelers were held for hours without access to food and water while others were placed in restraints before being put on flights back to Taiwan, she said.
Ms. Ko and a companion, Liaw Shu-Huey, said 484 Falun Gong members were turned back at the airport, although Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported on June 29 the number was closer to 140.
The action served to limit protests against Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to Hong Kong on July 1, the 10th anniversary of the city's return to Chinese rule, said John J. Tkacik Jr., a China scholar at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
"The fact that Hong Kong immigration deals differently with Falun Gong adherents now than it did 10 years ago is a clear indication that China has strengthened its hold on the [territory's] domestic politics," Mr. Tkacik said. "It's a disturbing reminder that Hong Kong is not wholly independent from Beijing's influence."
Hong Kong officials offered no official explanation for the incident. The Hong Kong immigration department does not comment on individual cases, said Daniel McAtee, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Washington.
Although Hong Kong has been part of Communist China since the British left in 1997, it enjoys a high degree of political autonomy and more social and economic freedom than the mainland — conditions that many see as vital to the city's continued role as a global financial center.
With roots in Buddhism, Taoism and other beliefs, Falun Gong is a spiritual practice combining meditation and exercises that was established in 1992. The group estimated it had 100 million followers worldwide when the Chinese government banned it in 1999, saying its practitioners "engaged in superstition and disrupted public order."
Chinese officials have described the movement as "an evil cult," saying hundreds of members have committed suicide under its influence. Falun Gong members say they are the victims of ongoing persecution, imprisonment and torture in mainland China.
Falun Gong has remained legal in Hong Kong under Chinese rule, and the group stages protests regularly, Mr. McAtee said. Hong Kong's constitution, known as the Basic Law, enshrines for residents such liberties as a free press, free expression and the right to demonstrate.
Although individual members of Falun Gong are sometimes barred from entering the city, Ms. Ko said 2003 was the last time a large number — about 80 people — was stopped at one time.