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Saturday, Sept. 17, 2005

Divisive embrace of Hong Kong democrats


HONG KONG -- After 16 years during which it ostracized members of the prodemocracy camp, Beijing is finally adjusting its policy toward Hong Kong.

The Communist government is making use of its tried-and-true strategy of forging a united front, such as with its old enemy the Nationalist Party in Taiwan and, in Hong Kong, with democrats whom, only last year, it had excoriated as "traitors."

This is a major readjustment of the united front policy vis-a-vis Hong Kong. Previously, Beijing had tried to isolate Hong Kong's democrats by uniting with all other parties. However, this did not work because the democrats have the support of a majority of the Hong Kong electorate.

Isolating the democrats in effect meant that the Communists were isolating themselves, since the democrats have always been able to win more than 60 percent of the votes in each election.

Now, it is likely that Beijing will try a more sophisticated tactic, that of divide and rule. While no longer trying to exclude democrats from functions -- such as the dinner for Vice President Zeng Qinghong in Hong Kong Sunday night -- the central government is allowing divisions to appear within democratic ranks.

Already, the most vocal activist among their ranks, "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, declined to sign the joint letter sent by the 24 other prodemocracy legislators to Zeng appealing for Beijing to reverse its decision to rule out universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008. Instead, he alone shouted slogans at the dinner, before he was forcibly ejected by security people.

The democrats were disappointed that Zeng, in his speech, did not respond to their plea for universal suffrage. Instead, the vice president called for all parties to "be generous and accommodating for the common good and to promote harmony," words that can be interpreted as a rejection of their request.

While Zeng was invariably good-humored and easygoing during his trip, it was obvious that his intention was more to speak than to listen. While visiting a working man's family, for example, the vice president spent almost the entire time delivering a monologue, urging the public to give more support to the new chief executive, Donald Tsang.

Ironically, the Communist leader clearly was much more interested in listening to the views of capitalists than to those of workers.

He had breakfast with Hong Kong's wealthiest man, Li Ka-shing, and Li's two sons. He also met with a good number of Hong Kong's other business moguls, including Lee Shau-kee, chairman of Henderson Land, Walter Kwok and his brother, Thomas Kwok, chairman and vice chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties, as well as Cheng Yu-tong, chairman of New World Development, and Robert Kuok, who controls Kerry Properties.

Zeng, who is responsible for the Hong Kong portfolio in the central government, is credited with making a conciliatory gesture by agreeing to let Tsang lead a delegation of Hong Kong legislators later this month to Guangdong, including all members of the prodemocracy camp. This is a major move since many of the democrats have not been allowed into the mainland since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

On one level, what this means is that the central government, at long last, is giving official recognition to the Hong Kong legislature. It was certainly unnatural and abnormal that, in the past, the Chinese government would not acknowledge the Legislative Council as an integral part of the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

The democrats hope that that the central government will do more than this. They hope that Chinese leaders will actually be willing to hold a dialogue with them, but it is not by any means clear that this is what Beijing has in mind.

What is evident is that Beijing would like to see a reduction in controversy in Hong Kong or, put another way, an increase in social harmony.

But its way of bringing this about may not be to accommodate the democrats, but rather to neutralize them by gradually reducing their popular support.

Chinese leaders apparently hope to do this by winning public support for their policies of revitalizing the Hong Kong economy without giving significant ground on political reform.

This is not to say that Beijing is necessarily insincere in its approach to the democrats. It is merely to say that China's leaders have not shown their cards yet and it is too early to assume that everything is going to be hunky dory from here on.

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


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