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Friday, Feb. 27, 2004

Watershed for Hong Kong-Beijing ties

HONG KONG -- The relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing is at a critical point, with the central government having cautioned the special administrative region not to rush headlong into democracy while local people fear that their democratic aspirations may be frustrated.

So far, the central government itself has not taken any irrevocable actions. It has set forth principles that must be observed and explained what its areas of concern are. However, there are people in the central government who are creating new problems not only for Hong Kong but for Beijing as well.

The prime example is Tsang Hin-chi, a Hong Kong member of the standing committee of the National People's Congress. After the central government asserted that the main body of those governing Hong Kong should comprise of "patriots," Tsang publicly declared that three leaders of the Democratic Party -- Martin Lee, Szeto Wah and Cheung Man-kwong -- are not patriotic.

Moreover, when Hong Kong's Justice Department, headed by Secretary Elsie Leong -- who has excellent relations with the mainland -- invited outspoken legislator Margaret Ng to join a delegation headed to Beijing for economic discussions, someone in the central government bureaucracy rejected her application for a re-entry permit, thus sending a negative message not only to the prodemocracy camp but to the public as well that the central government is autocratic and unyielding.

Also, after journalists pointed out that the Chinese Foreign Ministry had told Britain 10 years ago that a decision on electing the entire legislature by universal suffrage after 2007 was "a question to be decided by the Hong Kong SAR itself and it needs no guarantee by the central government," the official Xinhua news agency publicized statements saying that the Foreign Ministry's words had been taken out of context and distorted. I was personally vilified by the communist paper Ta Kung Pao.

But Beijing itself has, so far, not said or done anything irrevocable. Its seven principles -- including the premise of "one country, two systems," gradual and orderly progress, and maintenance of prosperity and stability -- are quite general and unobjectionable provided that they are interpreted in a reasonable manner. For example, the "patriotism" proviso, first raised by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, was later defined as little more than support for Hong Kong's return to China and was not incorporated into the Basic Law.

In fact, President Hu Jintao's assertion of the central government's heightened concern over political reform in the special administrative region can be good for Hong Kong. Certainly, it is an opportunity for both China and Hong Kong to understand each other better.

In this regard, there is a bad need for new communications channels to be established. Beijing's current practice of barring leaders of the democratic camp from access to the mainland is a huge obstruction to communication and should be ended.

The proposal that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa lead all legislators to Beijing to meet with the central government, perhaps after the September elections, is a good one and may be just the move needed to clear the atmosphere. To their credit, the democrats have for the most part been careful not to engage in anti-China rhetoric.

As Paul Yip, chairman of the think tank Hong Kong Policy Research Institute has recalled, in the old days, the communists used to talk about a "patriotic, democratic movement." This shows that patriotism and democracy are not incompatible but actually go together.

It is understandable that the central government should at present be concerned about the outcome of the Taiwan presidential elections and the possibility that democracy in Hong Kong will result in someone like Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian taking over. But such concern is unnecessary. There is no desire for independence in Hong Kong. Unlike Taiwan, which is separated from the mainland by 160 km of ocean, Hong Kong is literally dependent on the mainland for its food and water.

Independence is simply unthinkable in the Hong Kong context, and no one in the political mainstream harbors any illusions. Besides, Hong Kongers are so pragmatic that they will not elect anyone known to be antagonistic toward the central government.

For now, Hong Kong should work toward developing a consensus on the pace of democratization. Beijing should observe the process but not intervene in it.

The central government should recognize that Hong Kong's problems today do not stem from personalities alone, but from the system. The current system, which denies the chief executive support by a political party in the legislature, is clearly unworkable. Refusal to institute reforms will in the long run affect Hong Kong's stability and prosperity.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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