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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Hong Kong protesters roll up their sleeves

HONG KONG -- The April 11 protest against Beijing's decision to interpret the Basic Law's provisions in a way that makes it impossible for the Special Administrative Region, or SAR, to initiate moves toward universal suffrage marks the first large protest against the central government since the handover almost seven years ago. It will not be the last.

While the "interpretation" of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's miniconstitution, by the standing committee of the National People's Congress has removed from Hong Kong people any right to move toward full democracy, it has also ensured a prolonged confrontation between the SAR and the central government.

This is something that most people in Hong Kong had wanted to avoid. Organizers of the massive demonstrations last July 1 and on New Year's Day had carefully avoided any slogans that were critical of Beijing. Instead, they had praised the wisdom of the central government and concentrated their fire instead on Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his administration.

However, Beijing clearly was not interested in maintaining a facade of good will with the Hong Kong public. It moved decisively to strip Hong Kong of the guarantees in the Basic Law that provided for the region's right to initiate moves toward full democracy, including the direct election of the chief executive and the election of the entire legislature through universal suffrage.

The 10,000-strong demonstration on Easter Sunday shows that many in Hong Kong now believe that that there is no alternative to confrontation. The much larger demonstration planned for July 1 will not simply target the Tung demonstration, but focus its anger on the central government in Beijing. That being the case, sooner or later, a crackdown can be expected.

Although China's top official in charge of Hong Kong policy, Lu Ping, had said in 1993 that the "future development of Hong Kong's democracy is a matter entirely within Hong Kong's autonomy," Chinese officials now pointedly say that regardless of what anyone said, the interpretation is now the law.

Foreign businessmen have long said that the really hard negotiations begin only after a contract with China has been signed, meaning that China does not honor its contractual commitments. Hong Kong has now learned that this is true not only of business contracts, but of their constitutional document as well. Beijing gives itself the right to change the constitution at any time, in any way that it wants.

Of course, the Basic Law was meant to implement the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by China and Britain in 1984. The Basic Law was negotiated between the central government and segments of the Hong Kong public, having gone through two drafts before it was finalized.

Now, however, China tells Britain that it must not interfere, even though London as a signatory of the Joint Declaration is party to an international agreement that will not expire until 2047.

Furthermore, Beijing is telling the Hong Kong people that, having accepted the Basic Law, they must not only accept it in its entirety but also accept the central government's right to interpret it. But if the Basic Law means whatever Beijing says it means, then it means nothing. It was meant to reassure Hong Kong; now its provisions are much less reassuring than before.

Twenty years ago, almost 10 percent of Hong Kong's population decided to emigrate to places like Canada, the United States and Australia rather than live under a communist government. Many eventually came back, armed with foreign passports, with children who had grown up overseas.

Today, with strengthened international familial networks, many more people in Hong Kong can emigrate if they wish. If Beijing continues with its heavy-handed ways, there is no doubt that many will leave again. And those who leave will be the people who are most essential to Hong Kong -- the best educated, the most highly skilled and those with tangible assets.

If Beijing wants to end the estrangement between itself and Hong Kong, now is the time to show its good will. If full democracy in 2007 and 2008 is out of the question, Beijing should show what steps can be taken in those years and lay out a timetable to show the people of Hong Kong that they have a future worth waiting for.

If not, Beijing should realize that it may trigger another exodus from Hong Kong. And the world will see how the Chinese Communist Party ruined a great metropolis in less than a decade, one that had thrived for a century and a half under British rule.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong based journalist and commentator.

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