Search Tuesday February 24, 2004

China and Hong Kong: No more nice guy
China and Hong Kong
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Saturday, February 14, 2004

HONG KONG: There may be few communists left in China, but the spirit of Lenin is alive in Beijing. Hong Kong is learning that the instincts for dictatorship of a secretive, hierarchical, centralized party have yet to yield to the forces of the marketplace.

On Tuesday, Beijing laid down its law for Hong Kong. The territory can be a marketplace for money - not least a laundry for the illegal exactions of mainland officials. But it must not be a marketplace where ideas for political change can be debated and acted upon. Bourgeois ideas of elections, representative government, are as anathema now as they were to the Chinese revolutionaries. Authoritarianism, as ever, comes dressed as "patriotism."

After mass demonstrations on July 1 last year and again last month, Hong Kong is supposed to be debating political reform to take effect before the choosing of the next chief executive in 2007 and legislative elections in 2008. The government recently appointed a task force to take soundings and come up with recommendations. But any hopes that people would be able to make their own decisions within the framework of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, were quickly dashed.

The three officials leading the task force were summoned to Beijing last weekend and lectured. Xinhua, the official Chinese news service, made no secret of the message, publishing a stark list of instructions that Hong Kong must follow.

These included the subservience of the "Two Systems" (that is, Hong Kong's separate one) to "One Country" (China), and of the concept of a "high degree of autonomy" to authorization by the central government. The promise of "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" was qualified by the requirement that they be "patriots" - Beijing code for its acolytes.

Hong Kong must continue to have an "executive-led" government - in other words, one led by Beijing-selected executives rather than by elected legislators. Any changes in methods of choosing officials and legislators was subject to Beijing's permission, the Basic Law notwithstanding.

In short, words mean whatever Beijing wants them to mean.

The bluntness of Xinhua seemed a throwback to 1993 when Beijing reverted to the language of the Cultural Revolution, describing Governor Chris Patten as a "whore" and "criminal of a thousand years" for attempting to introduce a measure of representative government.

Two things are different today. The chief executive is a Beijing appointee, and Hong Kong is much more politically aware, with the middle classes especially hankering to play a bigger role in government. The democrats enjoy more popular support than an administration filled with placemen and with obvious links to business oligopolies and sleazy deals.

People have been demanding more democracy not just for its own sake, but as a means to more accountable government. Beijing cannot readily buy popular support, so it has entered into an alliance of convenience with "patriotic" vested interests which serve it in the short term but risk its longer term alienation.

After the July 1 demonstration, China seemed to understand that popular discontent was aimed at the Hong Kong government, not at Beijing. But now it is reverting to type, regarding any criticism of its appointees as an attack on itself.

Beijing is upset by any challenge to its authority, however indirect. It appears to fear that, as in Taiwan, popular elections will bring demands for ever greater autonomy and ultimately independence. But Beijing is unwilling to recognize that the desire for democratic self-government to which educated, prosperous societies (Chinese or otherwise) aspire has been fostered by intemperate words from Beijing. The more they are told they cannot or should not have it, the more they want it.

Beijing did not even bother to wait for the Taiwan presidential election before issuing the fiat. This suggests the final death of Deng Xiaoping's hope that successful implementation in Hong Kong of his "One Country, Two Systems" formula would draw Taiwan into a similar arrangement. The people of Taiwan have mostly been skeptical of Beijing's promises. Now they have reason to know that at best they are of limited duration and subject to Beijing's definition of patriotism.

The Xinhua statement may just be an extreme initial position. In practice, Beijing may be accommodating to some of Hong Kong's democratic pressures so long as its overriding authority is recognized. But optimism must be based more on hope than on the facts - Beijing's unstinting support for an administration and system that have rewarded insiders and failed to deliver good governance.