KONGThe Hong Kong people have stood up, to borrow Mao Zedong's words.
They have surprised themselves, China, and even the world. Often portrayed as
paying more attention to personal advancement and making money than to who
governs them, they may have written a new chapter in Asian democratic
development. Mounting a demonstration whose size exceeded all expectations, they
forced the government to retreat and to defer a national security bill that
would have undermined their autonomy, in the process humiliating their
Beijing-appointed leader and opening the way to constitutional change.
Though the territory has known mass
protests and riots before, this was the first time that Hong Kong's people set
out a political agenda of their own, daring Beijing to acknowledge that there
were "Two Systems in One Country," and their own government to acknowledge that
it represented their interests, not Beijing's.
It was the size of the demonstration, not
the passion, that was decisive. Indeed, the results already seem almost out of
proportion to the relaxed atmosphere in which it took place. The half million
participants, many neatly dressed in black, some carrying babies and pushing
prams, stood for hours in the midsummer heat. As numbers swelled far beyond what
organizers and police had expected, crowds were corralled into narrow streets,
unable to move. But scarcely a soul got angry, no one was arrested. Humor, not
anger, was the dominant sentiment. People who just weeks ago wore masks and
avoided close contact because of the SARS epidemic were now packed happily cheek
by jowl for hours on end. It seemed a celebration of the end of SARS as well as
a political statement.
Still, the government might not have
caved in to one demonstration, however large. But in the aftermath it sensed
that the organizers could repeat the protest over and over again.
Following the march, media normally
supportive of the government reported events in ways which showed a change of
heart. They went with the flow of opinion that the security legislation was
dangerous and the government incompetent.
So eventually did the one astute
politician, James Tien, head of the pro-business Liberal Party. By resigning
from the cabinet, apparently with the approval of some in Beijing, he forced the
government to defer the legislation and has opened the way to further changes in
the way Hong Kong is run.
The result was not merely the
postponement of the much disliked security laws. The events of the week could
also lead to the early retirement of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, whose
political bungling has exasperated Beijing. They will probably lead to several
ministerial changes, as well as amendments to a system introduced only last year
which made ministers accountable directly to the chief executive, bypassing the
legislature. Most importantly, they have put the Hong Kong government and
Beijing on notice that mass demonstrations could become a regular feature of
Hong Kong life unless the democratic franchise is broadened to reflect interests
other than those of big business and pro-Beijing politicians.
The events also highlighted China's
dilemmas in dealing with Hong Kong. There is no longer one view of Hong Kong in
Beijing. Indeed, Tung's vacillating responses to the protest suggest he was
receiving no clear signals. Beijing apparently did not want to get involved, yet
had to be seen as backing its appointee. Eventually it was compelled to heed
Hong Kong's complaints. News of the protests was firmly suppressed in the
mainland media, revealing Beijing's fear that they could set a precedent - that
there were mass demonstrations, and they succeeded. But the news is filtering in
anyway. .Unlike South Korea and Taiwan, where democratic movements had roots in
militant unions and the middle class, Hong Kong's political reform movement is a
very middle class affair. There is scant threat of real turmoil. But these 10
days have seen a peaceful revolution that no one anticipated.