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Wednesday, June 2, 2004

China threatens Hong Kong's freedoms

Special to The Japan Times

When China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997 after 150 years of British rule, the "one country, two systems" formula for this special administrative region of China promised that Beijing would leave Hong Kong's free-wheeling capitalist way of life untouched for at least 50 years.

The Basic Law, the mini-constitution governing Hong Kong, looked forward to a fully democratic government, but did not set a date. At the moment, the chief executive is chosen by an indirectly elected committee of 800 people. The last time, though, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, with Beijing's connivance, forestalled any election by getting the support of more than 400 committee members. Half of the 60-member legislative council is chosen by democratic vote, and the rest by "functional" constituencies of financial institutions, lawyers, social workers and others.

A majority of Hong Kong people want to see democracy quickly in this city-territory of 7 million, which ranks as one of the most prosperous economies in the world, with per capita income of about $25,000. So why not 2007, the next election for chief executive, and 2008, for legislative elections, for full democracy?

Because Beijing said "no." What was the more discouraging was the way that Beijing chose to lay down the law. First of all it orchestrated a barrage of hostile propaganda both against democrats as a whole and against key individuals, claiming that some of them were not "patriotic," then it used the National People's Congress, the rubber-stamp Parliament, to "re-interpret" the Basic Law to insist that China not only had the final say over reforms to the system, but had the first say as well because its permission was needed to give the green light for discussion of possible changes.

Just in case the message had not got home, leading tycoons with business interests in China rushed to support the decision, claiming that Hong Kong was not ready for democracy because it took years of preparation, because people were not educated enough to understand democracy, and so on.

Tung underlined how little freedom Hong Kong has when he set out nine rules. The first of them stated upfront that Hong Kong "in examining the direction and pace of its constitutional development, must pay heed to the views of the central authorities." Other points said that the principle of the "executive led" government must not be breached.

Rule 6 was so all-embracing to prevent any change except when Beijing wills it. The English translation was also atrocious. It said: "When considering the actual situation, public opinions, as well as other factors, including the legal status of the HKSAR, the present stage of constitutional development, economic development, social conditions, the understanding on the part of the public of 'one country, two systems' and the Basic Law, public awareness on political participation, the maturity of political talent and political groups, as well as the relationship between the executive authorities and the legislature, must be taken into account."

But this has not proved the end of the battle. In a city that is rich and relatively sophisticated, there is general dissatisfaction with the performance of Tung and his colleagues because they have been slow to react to crises and have been too beholden to Beijing. The powers of the legislative council are limited and Tung rarely appears before it to answer for his performance.

So the press and radio talk shows have become the main forums for debate about the state of Hong Kong 2004. The press has been considerably tamed. The main English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, mouths the pieties about the need for eventual democracy and full consultation, but backs away from challenging Tung or Beijing.

The leading prodemocracy Chinese-language newspaper, Apple Daily, has felt the blast of Beijing's wrath, with leading property companies withdrawing advertisements, a main source of revenue in a Hong Kong that is starting to pick up economically.

The surprise development was that popular talk-show hosts began to feel the heat. Albert Cheng King-hon, host of Commercial Radio's "Teacup in a Storm," quit, alleging that he and his family had received death threats. Raymond Wong Yuk-man, another talk-show host known for his criticism of the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities, quit, claiming exhaustion, and flew to the United States. There were rumors that Beijing had enlisted the support of triad gangs. Another talk-show host on the government radio channel was moved from his prime-time program.

Worse was to follow. Allen Lee Peng-fei, a respected politician with pro-Beijing leanings, took over "Teacup in a Storm." Lee, founder-chairman of the probusiness, pro-China Liberal Party and a member of the NPC, actually consulted the NPC before taking the job. But he quit after two weeks, claiming, "I cannot express my opinions freely. I don't want to stay in a kitchen with rising temperature."

The official China Daily said it was natural for Lee to go because he had forgotten his responsibilities to the NPC in criticizing its "re-interpretation" of the Basic Law.

Last Thursday, Lee claimed that he had decided to step down after a retired mainland official had made a late-night telephone call to him and had referred pointedly to his wife and daughter.

Beijing is playing a dangerous game. It is using the iron fist in the hope of influencing the legislative council elections in September, but Hong Kong people can be notoriously stubborn. If they decide they still want democracy by electing democrats to most of the seats decided by universal suffrage, it will be a dangerous challenge that Beijing and Tung have brought upon themselves.

Kevin Rafferty, a former managing editor at the World Bank, is author of "City on the Rocks, Hong Kong's Uncertain Future" (Viking Press, 1990).

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