Ever since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing's Communist leaders have been promising to honor the ''one country, two systems'' formula that grants the former British colony a large degree of autonomy for 50 years.

But pro-democracy watchdogs detect a subtle tightening of the screws to make the Special Administrative Region conform to the mainland system.They point to increasing curbs on press freedom, government appointments to previously elected district councils, the pending abolition of two municipal councils and Chinese meddling with the independence of the judiciary - all facilitated by Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

The latest blow to Hong Kong's formerly outspoken media was the transfer of a popular broadcast director to trade duties in Japan.

Cheung Man-yee, who had been in charge of publicly funded Radio Television Hong Kong since colonial days, was apparently punished for giving air time to a Taiwanese envoy.

Martin Lee, head of the Democratic Party, called it ''banishment, because she chose to be independent. Just think of the message to her successor and many other good people at RTHK: If you don't toe the party line, this could happen to you too.''

According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, Tung has taken advantage of the recession in Hong Kong to stifle political dissent while masking his repressive agenda with popular welfare and public works projects that make Hong Kong appear to be a ''kinder, gentler enclave.''

He has, for example, devoted a great deal of time to environmental issues such as air quality and noise.

His administration has spent $5 billion on programs to help young people get jobs, has nearly doubled the construction of public housing, is negotiating with Walt Disney Co. for a $2.6 billion theme park and will launch a mandatory public pension scheme at the end of next year.

While this appeals to a territory that has never before been saddled with 6.2 percent unemployment, Tung's opponents in the Democratic Party accuse him of purposely surrendering the independence of the judiciary by asking China's National People's Congress to overrule Hong Kong's highest court.

The legal brouhaha began in January when the Court of Final Appeal struck down a law denying residency to children born before either of their parents had acquired the right to live in the territory. The court ruled that the Basic Law, Hong Kong's post-colonial constitution, guaranteed residency to all offspring, even illegitimate children.

Because of a huge waiting list of prospective immigrants from China, many children grow up before they are ever reunited with their Hong Kong kin.

But the appeals court ruled that this was unfair, and that all eligible children must be allowed to immigrate within a ''reasonable period.''

The ruling alarmed Tung's administration and angered mainland officials who feared it would add 1.6 million people to Hong Kong's already crowded 6.8 million, ruining a city that Beijing wants to maintain as a showcase of free enterprise and a funnel for investment in China.

The World Bank ranks Hong Kong as the world's most densely populated area, with 6,375 people per square kilometer compared with 29 people per square kilometer in the United States. One-third the size of Rhode Island, it has seven times that state's population.

Already, 150 Chinese migrate to Hong Kong each day and 44 children enter the school system daily. There is a six-year wait for public housing, and the government estimates the number of people on waiting lists would triple if the court ruling held.

That is why Tung asked China's rubber-stamp legislature to ''reinterpret'' the Basic Law, which it did in June, effectively

ifying the appellate decision.

Opponents say this tampering with the constitution and judicial process sets a dangerous precedent. Perhaps Tung will ask the Chinese to ''reinterpret'' other aspects of the Basic Law, or other court rulings that displease him.

They also point out that migrants made Hong Kong successful. Mainland refugees from the purges and famines that followed the Communist Revolution helped make the tiny territory a trading power and banking center with a per capita income higher than that of its former colonial master.

So they should be welcomed, not feared.