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China talks democratically, acts autocratically
By Lawrence Gray

HONG KONG - At the same time that China this week was ruling out the possibility of electing the government in Hong Kong, President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao was announcing: "Citizens' orderly political participation should be expanded and people's democratic election, democratic decision-making, democratic management and democratic supervision in line with laws should be guaranteed."

Before you leap to the conclusion that Mr Hu is a closet democrat, you must bear in mind that nowadays they like to hear this kind of thing in China because it sounds good for business. He made this speech to the "12th group study session of the Communist Party of China's Political Bureau on improvement of the legal system and the socialist market economic system", so business is much in mind. The message conveyed by content and context: "Do business in China and help build democracy." Which could be true and it might help assuage the consciences of US businessmen eyeing the enormous opportunities China offers.

On Monday China ruled out ruled out direct popular elections for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2007 and direct popular elections for the Hong Kong legislature in 2008. Since Britain handed Hong Kong back to the People's Republic of China in 1997, the special administrative region's Basic Law or constitution aims for gradual universal suffrage, but does not guarantee it at a certain time. It says the political development will be reviewed after 2007 with the ultimate goal of introducing direct election of the entire legislature and the chief executive. The basic law, however, provides two criteria pertaining for democratic reform - the "actual situation" and "the principle of gradual progress".

Article Five of the Basic Law states: "The socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for fifty years." This means that after fifty years, One Country, One System is a possibility.

However, in Hong Kong certain members of the business community suggest that if there were any more democracy in Hong Kong, people would vote for a welfare state where the rich had to support the parasitic poor. And the rich, one assumes, would leave to live in less democratic countries such as the United States. Democracy is a very complicated business that cuts in all directions.

China wants to keep the rich in Hong Kong, or at least the super-rich, and Qiao Xiao-yang, the deputy secretary general of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), has said that early universal suffrage would have a detrimental impact upon the economy. Rather plaintively he added: "The central authorities do not have any self-interest. Everything we have done we did for the good of Hong Kong." This might be a little disingenuous, because it is hard to imagine that China's rulers are not considering where their interests lie in the matter, or, if one wishes to be kind, the future of the policy they have mapped out for the Pearl River Delta.

Qiao Xiaoyang also has said, "A fair number of people oppose having universal suffrage in 2007/2008," and he also has said, "Upholding universal suffrage as a symbol of the highest state of democracy does not require much courage."

In the aftermath of all this, democracy advocate Martin Lee said on Wednesday: "The people of Hong Kong have learned to trust President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Clearly, they should learn to trust the people of Hong Kong." Which does suggest that Martin Lee, Democratic Party legislator and former member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee, believes, in public at least, that somewhere between the liberal-minded Hu and the Red Earth, more self-serving interests are interfering in the communication process. If only the emperor could hear our pleas above the rancor of corrupt eunuchs! As ever, one still finds echoes of Qing Dynasty politics and the politics of old colonial Hong Kong.

The British used gunboats to quell discontent
When the British were in Hong Kong they complained about much the same problem and solved it by sending a gunboat up the Yangtze River. The democrats pin their hopes on a suitably large public demonstration. And so we find Stanley Ho Hung-sun (chairman of Sun Tak Holdings and chairman of the Macau Jockey Club, among many other positions) saying that mass demonstrations against Beijing's decision not to allow the election of the chief executive and the legislature by universal suffrage "are not a good thing. It is like playing with fire and things could go wrong." Meaning that there might be a riot, shots might ring out, and martial law would follow.

In terms of realpolitik, all the power is in the hands of the Chinese, so if anyone can send an effective gunboat in to clear the air, it is China. But would China be able to do that and not cause itself more problems than it solves? A surly Hong Kong under military rule and a Taiwan itching to declare independence, complete with, let us say, an aggressive US, could upset an awful lot of plans and careers. And although Stanley might be saying, "Make my day, punk!" one suspects that the People's Liberation Army would pay scant regard to the orders of this aging figure of Hong Kong's colonial heritage. A democratic Hong Kong might be a small price to pay, especially if it is hemmed in by various limitations restricting its local government to dealing with zoning regulations and traffic control.

However, one cannot be certain that Hu's democracy means much more than bringing a few more capitalists into what is becoming a rather peculiarly named "Communist Party", and any subsequent pro-democracy demonstrations, no matter how they are accompanied by declarations of loyalty and support, will be seen merely as challenges to the authority of the state. Especially since the state believes that, quoting Qiao Xiaoyang of the Standing Committee of the NPC, "Failing to maintain the balanced participation of the industrial and business sector in the political system would fail to maintain Hong Kong's original capitalist system." He goes on to say that "balanced participation is the fundamental principle that is carefully protected in the design of political systems in all mature capitalist societies".

In short, they might have universal suffrage but the system is fixed so that the capitalists maintain their power, and until we find out how that is done, Hong Kong cannot have universal suffrage.

And so, in this slippery environment, one finds the rather esoteric concept of "deliberative democracy" surfacing from the environmentalist lobby and Christine Loh's Civic Exchange think-tank. They suggest that trust from Beijing can be gained if the public concentrates on creating pressure groups for issues such as harbor reclamation and toxic emissions, causes they have been rather unsuccessful in advancing. In theory this is supposed to demonstrate to the powers in China that democracy is about good governance and has the benefit of largely attacking the sort of vested interests represented by the likes of Stanley Ho, Li Ka-shing (head of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd), Gordon Wu (chairman of Hopewell Holdings Ltd), Ronnie Chan (chairman of Hang Lung Development), and probably anyone else you can think of with an office block in Hong Kong. The capitalists are thus the real enemy rather than the communists, and somehow this is going to persuade Hu Jintao's Communist Party of China to reconsider its actions concerning universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

None of this has the ability to rouse the masses quite so readily as "Down with Tung Chee-hwa", and if a letter in the South China Morning Post is anything to go by, "Down with Donald Tsang!" Tsang, the chief secretary for administration, was once seen as the golden boy of Hong Kong's government and the man who saved Chief Executive Tung from complete disaster, but given the thankless task of heading the government task force on democratic reform, he has dented the credibility he once enjoyed with the general public. There was even an attempt on Wednesday to scrap Stephen Lam Sui-lung's post of constitutional affairs secretary by Democratic councilors in the Legislative Council (Legco).

Brace for more democracy demonstrations
So they are gunning for anyone connected with Tung's government and after the next set of pro-democracy street demonstrations prove to be shockingly larger than Beijing was led to expect, then one will probably see the last of the government's dwindling supply of talent resigning and leaving for overseas posts. This victory, however, will not bring about a new government but further deterioration in the performance of the present one.

Hong Kong politicians are having a difficult time wrestling with the peculiarity of being only able to express their opposition by creating a completely ineffective government without their having any means of replacing it. Consequently, one now sees the anti-democrats scrambling to create an alternative method of governing Hong Kong while maintaining the illusion of there being a local Hong Kong government.

Those big business people and delegates to the NPC and the Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) who met in Shenzhen last week - and who will continue to meet - were going to try to undermine any moves toward mass demonstrations. The location of their meetings, in a mainland city adjacent to Hong Kong, was significant. If they held meetings in Hong Kong itself, they would provoke demonstrations and not be able to control who came and who did not. Last week, Hong Kong democracy advocates were turned away. The aim has been to orchestrate support for the recent NPC Standing Committee's ruling that Hong Kong will not be able to elect its government in 2007 and 2008 and counter attempts by the opposition to force Beijing to reconsider its position.

In effect this group, which is expected to continue to hold meetings, has been handed the task of running Hong Kong, and given its previous outbursts about the lack of "patriotism" in the special administrative region, one can expect much the same attempts at character assassination, comparing Taiwanese independence campaigners with Hong Kong's democracy campaigners, and howls of abuse about Western influence and the undermining of traditional Chinese family values (or at least the price of the stock held by certain traditional Chinese families). Now, however, all of this is fueled by the certainty of Beijing's backing. This group that meets in Shenzhen see the weakness of the government not as a problem of legitimacy or accountability, but simply a matter of brute strength.

Arms will be twisted and a lot of people with business ties to the big players and across the border will have their loyalty tested - that is, their bank balances tested. This should clear the way for this curious collection of patriots to push through a political and economic agenda that as yet has not been made clear to the Hong Kong people. Whatever it is, it will be couched in the terms of stability and prosperity, and those who aim to protest will be characterized as creating instability and thus undermining the prosperity of the community. That is assuming that this collection of unnatural allies has a policy that Tung has not already discovered to be inept or impossibly unpopular.

Despite all this - or in fact because of it - Beijing is thought to be closely monitoring the situation and attempting to understand the aspirations of the Hong Kong people. A lot of people might hope that if pro-democracy street demonstrations do not materialize, then dialogue can be instituted with Beijing and a better method of choosing the government of Hong Kong can be sensibly discussed. A lot will depend upon the actions of that group that meets in Shenzhen, but they are seen more as throwbacks to an earlier time, at best, and mostly the architects of the government's descent into ineffectuality.

One thing positive about the present state of affairs in Hong Kong that should please those who emphasize the "one country" side of Deng Xiaoping's "one country, two systems" equation for Hong Kong's harmonious return to the motherland is that it is revealing to Hong Kongers the machinations of the mainland's political system and its operatives. Previously, nobody knew their NPC from their CPPCC, but whether this illumination is creating a healthy respect or an irreconcilable contempt has yet to be seen.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Apr 30, 2004

HK Polls: The law's on China's side (Apr 29, '04)

Hong Kong politics: business as usual
(Apr 8, '04)


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