KONGOut of crisis comes opportunity. Even before they started, the
massive demonstrations here against the proposed security laws on July 1 had
visiting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao scurrying back across the border to
neighboring Shenzhen. By the time half a million had marched in protest at the
regime which China installed six years earlier on the “joyous” occasion of the
handover, the public-relations savvy Wen should have realized that something has
The anger of Hong Kong people was aimed
primarily at an incompetent and sleazy local administration, not at Beijing. But
it could be infectious. China has long sought to curtail democratic development
in the territory for fear that a democratic example would spill over to the
mainland. Beijing remembers the mass support that Hong Kong gave to the
democracy movement in China in 1989. Its knee-jerk response to the demonstration
has been a clamp-down on news. So much for post-SARS openness.
But Wen Jiabao, it should be recalled,
was also the man beside then-Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang when he visited
students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, an act which earned Zhao dismissal by Deng
Xiaoping. Wen survived, but has continued to present himself as a
consensus-building, approachable man of the people.
In Hong Kong, Wen has the advantage that
he, like President Hu Jintao, is new in the job. He is neither personally nor
politically associated with the chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, or
the business groups which have thrived on Tung's domestic policies and his
particular connections in Shanghai and Beijing.
Changes at the top in China have already
been followed by the removal of the mayor of Beijing, and the uncovering of a
billion dollar land and corporate scandal in Shanghai.
Even before the demonstration, Wen
clearly realized that things were going wrong in Hong Kong. His visit passed
without a single word of public praise for Tung. The problem is how to clean up
the government in Hong Kong without either being seen as interfering in its
purported autonomy, or giving in to populist aspirations in Hong Kong.
The reason for the demonstration was the
government's proposed new security law which, in the wrong hands, could easily
be used to stifle freedom of speech and assembly. But it was as much a protest
against three other things:
The failure to advance democratic
representation in Hong Kong. Since 1997, the powers of its legislature have been
curtailed in favor of government by executive fiat, and no progress made towards
a genuinely democratic franchise. Bumbling administration by the world's highest
paid ministers and top bureaucrats which exacerbated the severe acute
respiratory syndrom crisis and economic woes. The self-interests of members of
an inbred business/bureaucratic elite which has been using the levers of
government to feather their own nests.
Tung has created a system in which
ministers are accountable only to him, and he is accountable only to Beijing.
Mutual loyalties have enabled some to survive scandals which elsewhere would
have required immediate resignation, and possibly legal action. In short while
Asia has been modernizing, giving power to rising middle class and professional
interests and accepting pluralism as part of progress, Hong Kong's leadership
has offered an odd mix of Communist centralism, bureaucratic authoritarianism
and business cronyism.
The opposition to this unholy alliance
has long existed in popular speech, in the media, and through a judiciary that
is still reasonably independent. Now it has come to life on the streets of a
city which has often been inaccurately described as apolitical.
The problem for China is how to advance
change at the elite level in Hong Kong in a way which requires only modest
surrender to democratic pressures. It is not just a matter of persuading Tung
that he is too old, ill or tired to continue. It means a wholesale clean-out of
arrogant, incompetent and venal power-holders who have used patriotism as cloak
to cover all failings.
Wen may now understand that Hong Kong may
be able to live without a fully representative legislature, and even with most
of the security bill. But it will not live quietly with an administration so out
of touch with its people. The people need to believe that their leaders
represent Hong Kong's interests, not those of particular business groups or
acolytes of Beijing. Unless Wen can engineer real change, the Hong Kong fever
will rise further and the danger of infecting the mainland will grow.
By the same token, the Hong Kong protests
may provide Wen with a lever for advancing more open and accountable government
on the mainland. Hong Kong's frustrations could bring benefits to systems on
both sides the border.