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Friday, Aug. 1, 2003


Too rich, too complex to be run by slaves

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG -- China's new premier, Wen Jiabao, on his first visit to Hong Kong in his new job gave a resounding speech, declaring that local people were in charge of their own destiny. The question now is whether he meant it and whether the leaders in Beijing are prepared to trust the maturity of Hong Kong's people -- not just for their own benefit but also for the good of all of China.

The omens are not good. No sooner had Wen safely crossed the border home than half a million Hong Kong people braved the melting temperatures, poured onto the streets and marched against Draconian security measures that the government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was preparing to force into law with all the subtlety of a steamroller out of control.

It was the biggest protest in Hong Kong since a million people had marched in 1989 to show their anger against the crackdown by the People's Liberation Army on prodemocracy campaigners in the heart of the Chinese capital. Ironically, Wen's visit on July 1 was in celebration of the sixth anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China's sovereignty after more than 150 years of British colonial rule.

The size and the passionate feelings of the protesters, some of whom called for democracy for Hong Kong and demanded the resignation of Tung, took the authorities in both Hong Kong and China by surprise. Regina Ip, Hong Kong's secretary for security, who almost made a cult of her toughness, blithely declared that the demonstrators had nothing better to do on a public holiday.

Whereas newspapers and television stations round the world prominently displayed pictures and commentary about the Hong Kong demonstration, the mainland media ignored it.

When it woke up to the fact that the march was the talk of Hong Kong and much of the region, the local edition of the China Daily, China's official English language voice, declared that "only 240,000" of those marching were really against the new security legislation.

Tung has increasingly shown that he lacks most of the skills for governing a rich, sophisticated city like Hong Kong, and his handling of the security legislation merely underlined his incompetence, as did the crisis over the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome and the faltering economy before that.

Hong Kong is obligated under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution governing the territory after its return to China, to pass new security laws. The mystery was why, after six years under Chinese sovereignty without any obvious problems, Tung decided that it was essential to pass the law and to do it in such a brutally hasty and flawed way.

He and Ip refused to publish a "white bill" which would have allowed the public to check the actual text. Instead, they held a "consultation" exercise that was itself flawed and then decided that the bill must be passed by July 9. The committee stage, at which a bill is approved line by line and can take weeks or even months, was rushed through in eight hours on a Saturday -- while most opponents were attending a seminar on the implications of the legislation.

Human rights lawyers, religious groups and media all raised objections, claiming that key clauses dealing with vital matters such as treason, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets, and banning of organizations were so sweeping as to undermine Hong Kong's traditional rights and freedoms.

Contravening obligations

Lawyers said that some of the clauses were so draconian, others so loosely drafted and sweeping, that they were in contravention of Hong Kong's international obligations and even of the promises of the Basic Law itself, which pledged that the territory would enjoy its own way of life largely autonomous from the Chinese mainland.

The march of the half a million was also a demonstration of desperation at the government's failure to listen to any voice except its own. It triggered a sharp succession of unexpected events.

Tung was obviously more worried by the demonstration than his security secretary, and announced on July 4 that to "allay public concerns" the government was dropping three of the most controversial measures, concerning police searches, handling of "state secrets" and banning of bodies prohibited on the mainland. But in typically obtuse fashion, he insisted that the bill still be passed on July 9.

James Tien Pei-chun, leader of the Liberal Party, a probusiness group and a key member of Tung's Executive Council, his Cabinet, known as Exco, pulled that rug away.

Tien declared that he was resigning from Exco and that the bill should be delayed until December to allow more public consultation. Without the votes of the Liberals, who formed the pro-Tung block in the legislative council with the Beijing-leaning Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the government could not pass the law. Tung bowed to the inevitable and postponed the bill.

The next surprise was the resignation of Ip, supposedly for personal reasons, and of another of Tung's close supporters, financial secretary Antony Leung, who had been under fire for buying a new Lexus car not long before his budget raised the taxes on such luxury vehicles.

The next logical step would have been for Tung to resign. After all, U.S. President Harry Truman's immortal slogan, "The buck stops here," is prominently displayed at the chief executive's desk. Tung had presided over the declining economy, mishandled the SARS crisis, given his confidence to Leung even after he had admitted buying the Lexus and backed Ip's steamroller push for the Article 23 law.

But when Tung paid a hasty visit to Beijing, he encountered mild criticism of his way of running things, and was given a fulsome vote of confidence by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen.

It is easy to be sympathetic to China: if Beijing sacked Tung, it would be a public admission of defeat and would present a further dilemma -- whether to replace him with a tougher chief executive and risk new public protests, or with a softer leader who would be vulnerable to further demands for concessions.

China is no doubt aggrieved by the attacks on its man in Hong Kong. After all, Britain ran Hong Kong for a century and a half and never had to see its governors face humiliating protests. (That is not quite true: in the early colonial days, the governor was often subject to rowdy protests, and as late as the 1960s Hong Kong's ruler had to cope with Beijing-inspired riots.)

Colonial contradictions

In many ways, although there was no formal democracy, colonial Hong Kong was run more democratically. Even before Chris Patten tried to open the legislative council to democratic elections, British governors brought a leavening of social workers, teachers and religious leaders onto the legislative council as well as to Exco to ensure that the government was tuned in to the voice of the people.

Governors were active, in ways that the aloof Tung has never been, in going walkabout to meet the people. Precisely because the British were outsiders, in ways that Tung would never admit to being (though he is Shanghainese and not a native Cantonese, who make up 95 percent of Hong Kong's population), they tried to assess the popular mood toward proposed measures.

Tung, as a former business executive, has tried to run Hong Kong like a company. He has surrounded himself with like-minded people, many of them businessmen with strong interests in China, and he has been careful to cultivate good relations with the people whom he sees as his shareholders, the leaders of China. The views and feelings of the people of Hong Kong never had the same priority for an executive without an understanding of politics.

No wonder Tung and China were surprised by the popular reaction. Beijing, no doubt concerned about the threat from the Falun Gong cult, probably told Tung that now was the time to enact the Article 23 legislation. No problem, replied the loyal chief executive, setting the loyal Ip to draft the wording.

None of this solves the problem of what to do now. From the tone of the official Xinhua report on Tung's meeting with Hu, Beijing has not realized the strength of opposition to the security laws or the unpopularity of Tung himself. The other explanation may be that the Communist Party rulers cannot contemplate the suggestion that Hong Kong people may not be obedient to their ruler because of the terrifying implications for China itself.

Under the 1984 agreement with the U.K., and indeed under the Basic Law, Hong Kong has a large degree of autonomy from China itself.

The Basic Law allows the possibility of democratic elections to the legislature and indeed of the chief executive from 2007. Tung has gone to the extent of even forbidding discussion of how such democracy might be introduced. Now is the time to overrule him and to make good the promises of Hong Kong people running Hong Kong by preparing for a full democratic government. Democracy, to quote Winston Churchill, may be the worst form of government apart from all the rest, but it is what the rest of the world understands by letting people run their own affairs.

Hong Kong is too rich, sophisticated, complicated and challenging to be run by slaves of Beijing. Beijing has enough problems of its own without having to keep a close eye on Hong Kong. Both sides gain by being distinct and different from each other, with Hong Kong continuing to provide the capital and knowhow to develop China's economy, with Chinese proving that they are smart enough to refine and improve on what they have learned.

Hong Kong people are smart enough to know that there is nothing to be gained by antagonizing Beijing and indeed are proud to be Chinese. In essence, Beijing has to realize that the loyalty of free people -- Hong Kong Chinese running their own affairs -- is worth more than the loyalty of slaves, Tung Chee-hwa and his cohorts.

The disaster of the security laws should prove to Beijing that although Tung may pledge his loyalty, it is useless unless he can carry Hong Kong with him.

Kevin Rafferty is author of "City on the Rocks, Hong Kong's Uncertain Future" (Viking and Penguin Books), a guide to the magic and mystery of Hong Kong's rise to be an international city.

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