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Hong Kong Surprise
by Frank Ching

On July 1, a demonstration by well over half a million people in Hong Kong caught everyone—including its organizers—by surprise. They expected no more than 100,000 protesters, at most. A national-security bill, Article 23, has been the focus of public attention for more than a year. Critics consider many of its provisions draconian, including a clause that permits police searches of homes without a warrant. While the catalyst for the outpouring was opposition to the Article 23 legislation, the rally tapped into deep-seated unhappiness within the Hong Kong community. Six years after its handover by Britain to China, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) has seen a great decline in its international status. The Chinese government may want it to be seen as Asia’s World City, but its 6.8 million people know that their home is no longer considered by the rest of the world as the Pearl of the Orient.

What was remarkable was that so many people were willing to stand and wait in the summer heat for hours to take part in the march. Even more remarkably, there was no violence. Not a single window was broken and no one was arrested. There are few places in the world where such a large crowd could stage such a peaceful, law-abiding rally. Two other demonstrations, also big but not on the same scale, have since been held. One was to protest the national-security bill, the other was a call for greater democracy.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was asked in the Legislative Council—Hong Kong’s law-making body—how many demonstrators it would take for him to listen to opposition to the bill. Tung replied that the government needed to enact Article 23 to accord with the Basic Law--Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution” and de facto social contract with its masters in Beijing. However, when half a million people took to the streets, the government had to take notice.

Hong Kong has been struck recently by a succession of disasters, beginning with the late 1990s Asian financial crisis, followed by the global economic downturn, as well as medical problems previously unknown to Hong Kong, such as the avian flu, dengue fever, and, most recently, the SARS epidemic. Unemployment now stands at a record 8.7 percent. Property prices have dropped by 70 percent. Deflation has ravaged the economy for five years. Aside from the economic gloom, the middle class is unhappy with the general drift of Hong Kong politics. The popular Chief Secretary, Mrs. Anson Chan, resigned in 2001 due to the Chinese Communist Party’s dislike of her progressive views.

Mr. Tung, meanwhile, was appointed by Beijing to a second five-year term in 2002. China’s then--President Jiang Zemin publicly declared that he wanted Tung to remain in office. With this pronouncement, an unpopular and ineffective chief executive was forced on the Hong Kong people with no consideration of an alternative candidate. Even if there had been an election, the Hong Kong public would not have been permitted to participate. That is because, under the rules drawn up by China and incorporated in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the election for chief executive requires a committee of only 800 people. The ultimate goal for the territory is to have a chief executive chosen through universal suffrage—according to the Basic Law—but it explicitly provides that this cannot happen before 2007 (and does not set any timetable for popular elections to be implemented). After 2007, elections are only possible with the approval of two-thirds of the legislature, the consent of the chief executive, and, the final hurdle, approval of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (China’s rubber-stamp parliament, which unquestioningly executes Communist Party policy).

Also, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is only partly elected by the public. The number of directly elected members has been rising, from 20 of the 60 seats in 1998 to half of its members voted in by the public next year. During the last election, six seats were returned by an election committee; next year, there will be no more election committee seats. Half the seats will be directly elected, with the other half filled by functional constituencies, such as chambers of commerce and other professional organizations.
For six years, Mr. Tung has been silent on any plans to move Hong Kong toward greater democracy. His predecessor, Chris Patten, the last British governor, had been eager to institute democratic reforms. But Mr. Tung’s relations with Hong Kong’s democracy activists have been strained from the moment he entered Hong Kong politics. Despite calls for his resignation, Mr. Tung has declared that he will never desert his post. China’s leaders have given him full support and are working hard to pump up the Hong Kong economy, hoping that dissatisfaction with Mr. Tung will dissipate after an economic rebound.

To that end, China has offered Hong Kong privileged access to its economy, for both products and services. Moreover, China has approved construction of a bridge linking Hong Kong with Macao and Zhuhai, on the Mainland, to create increased employment and attract investment. It has also approved much larger numbers of Chinese tourists to visit Hong Kong. At the same time, it has signaled opposition to any rush toward democracy, saying that Hong Kong needs stability above all else.

In a series of threatening commentaries in the official China Daily newspaper, PRC authorities have made it clear that they are opposed to greater democracy for Hong Kong. “If a legislature only half directly elected has resulted in these problems,” one man close to the Chinese government said, “think what an entire legislature that is directly elected can do.” China, he made clear, is not about to listen to demands for democracy. China Daily and Chinese officials have repeatedly asserted that Hong Kong should concentrate on what it does best-make money, and leave politics up to the experts in Beijing.

Democrats in Hong Kong are in a quandary. China can tolerate opposition to the Tung administration, but making demands that are confrontational to the central government will not be acceptable. Nevertheless, the huge July 1 march has strengthened their hand. Now they know their frustration is shared by large numbers of Hong Kong’s middle class and professionals, precisely the people whose support the Tung administration and the Chinese government require to maintain their iron grip over the SAR’s politics.
July 1 triggered a realization that Hong Kong’s political parties are extremely weak, with most having only a few hundred members. The vast majority of the demonstrators are not politically mobilized, and there is now talk of establishing a middle-class political party to capture their support. On a smaller scale, many discussion groups are forming to mull over current affairs, publish newsletters, and study economic, social, and political issues. Next month, several think tanks are joining together in a broad-based conference to discuss Hong Kong’s future. The topic: “Hong Kong’s Past, Hong Kong’s Future: More than an Economic City.” The discussion is certain to be lively, and Beijing will no doubt be watching closely.

When Hong Kong was handed over by Britain to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, there was a well-founded fear that China’s authoritarian system would require the strangling of Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society and culture. Now it looks like the tables may have turned, and the Communist Party is rightfully concerned that if their threats to Hong Kong are not heeded, democracy activists in China itself will begin questioning why their brethren to the south are worthy of self-rule and they are not.

Frank Ching is a writer based in Hong Kong. He has reported on China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for decades, first for the New York Times, then for Dow Jones & Co. He opened the Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979 and remained in Beijing for four years.

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Copyright 2003, by China Now Magazine. All rights reserved.