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Sunday, Feb. 13, 2005

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Iraq election exposed two faces of China


By HARVEY STOCKWIN

HONG KONG -- One unintended consequence of the Jan. 30 election in Iraq was that it exposed the hypocrisy and shortsightedness of China's policy toward Hong Kong and reunification with Taiwan. China not only expressed support for the rushed national election in its controlled press; it also donated $1 million in material supplies to help Iraq carry it out.

"Despite ceaseless insurgent activities and a smattering of imperfections in the democratic process, no one can possibly deny that the election was successful and champions the freedom that democracy brings," wrote Ma Xiaolin in the China Daily, which is owned and published by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The election "is designed to bring more people into the decision-making process . . . . (it) follows the historical trend of the world's political democratization."

This article was published even as the CCP continued to refuse to honor its Basic Law pledge to introduce universal suffrage, as early as possible, for Hong Kong elections of the chief executive in 2007 and of the legislature in 2008. The CCP is putting off that commitment to the dim and distant future, perhaps planning to dishonor it altogether. The world's "historical trend" is not apparent here.

Apart from the fact that China went along with what America wanted in Iraq so that it could increase pressure on America to let China do what it wants regarding Taiwan, consider what this means: Before Jan. 30, Iraq had not had free elections in three decades, and precious few before that. Hong Kong has been conducting orderly elections for at least two decades, but China supports an Iraq election based on universal suffrage while maintaining that Hong Kong is not ready for the same experience.

A full-blown insurgency continues to create havoc in Iraq. Hong Kong has long been, and remains, fully under the uncontested control of the Hong Kong police. Yet China supports a one-person-one-vote election in Iraq while maintains that the time is not yet ripe for that in sophisticated Hong Kong.

Rule of law is a long way from being established in Iraq. Rule of law has been consistently upheld in Hong Kong since World War II ended (except for a brief period in the 1960s when China itself sought to disrupt it). Yet China backs universal suffrage in Iraq, while denying it for its own special administrative region.

What has so affected China's national pride that Beijing would find Iraqis fit for universal suffrage and Chinese not qualified? What has so affected national pride in Hong Kong that no one, so far, has objected to Beijing's contemptuous inconsistency between the nonarrival of universal suffrage here and its hurried arrival in Iraq?

As ever, Hong Kong's separate sense of identity, so necessary for the success of "one country, two systems," is both weak and inconsistent.

Hong Kong remains a distinct entity within China, enjoying the rule of law, its own judicial system, freedom of information, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and its own (ostensibly) autonomous government. But to defend and sustain these vital attributes requires loyalty to Hong Kong as well as an overall loyalty to China.

Too often it is assumed, especially by Hong Kong elitists, that the latter can only be had at the expense of the former. This lack of a strong and persistent sense of Hong Kong identity explains why those who once thought that whatever Britain did was right have been replaced by those who think the same way about China -- often they are the same people.

This is why including the promise of universal suffrage in the Basic Law was shrewd. Real, rather than rigged, elections would be more likely to ensure that Hong Kong's own interests would be more carefully considered.

Of course, when Beijing approves elections for Iraq, it is maneuvering within the international community to win approval for itself as a growing regional power. When Beijing disapproves elections for Hong Kong, it is thinking purely of domestic considerations and of the need to keep China a one-party state.

China may even fail to see the inconsistency between these two positions. Beijing certainly fails to see that as long as China vetoes any moves toward universal enfranchisement in Hong Kong, Beijing effectively vetoes any real progress toward reunification with Taiwan.

As long as China interprets "one country, two systems" to mean indefinitely postponing Hong Kong's already overdue democratic progress, the chances of any meaningful dialogue across the Taiwan Strait are less than zero.

Taiwan has given itself the power to hold regular elections with universal suffrage. Elections are continuously embedded in Taiwan's political structure. In 2005, officials will be elected to farmers' associations that, according to The China Post, "constitute the grass-roots power bases for Taiwan political figures and parties, (so) the competition is expected to remain tense as in previous years."

At the end of 2005, there will be elections for county magistrates (administrative heads) and municipal mayors -- except for Taipei and Kaohsiung. The big prize will be the post of county chief in Taipei County, with its population of 3.5 million. Then, in 2006, there will be elections for county, city and township councils, plus the prestigious mayoral races in Taipei and Kaohsiung.

In 2007, it will be time to elect the Seventh Legislative Yuan (parliament), which will then, under a constitutional reform passed last year, consist of 113 seats directly elected in single-member constituencies. Unlike the political system on the other side of the Taiwan Straits, Taiwanese democracy does not stand still.

In the last polls of the present cycle, in 2008, all Taiwanese will have a chance to elect their next president, as Chen Shui-bian is ineligible run for a third term.

Obviously Taiwan is not interested in any arrangement allowing China to negate these elections. China currently construes "one country, two systems" to mean negating key elections for Hong Kong. So Taiwan understandably is cool on China's idea of reunification.

This conclusion is so obvious that one can only wonder why China -- as it patriotically pursues the unity of the motherland -- did not simply leave the Basic Law to take its course and encourage Hong Kong to undertake the political reform that the majority clearly desires.

Given the strength of Taiwan identity and Taiwanese democracy, neither the ruling nor the opposition party could afford to accept the "One China" principle in the way that an inflexible communist China now requires.

There is absolutely no sign that the Taiwanese would accept a return to limited-suffrage, China-style elections in which everyone knew the result before the voting took place -- as with Hong Kong's two limited-suffrage "elections" for chief executive.

Harvey Stockwin has been reporting on Hong Kong since taking up residence there in 1976.


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