Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

IS there a foreign hand behind the "democratic protest" against the proposed National Security (Legislative Provision) Bill in Hong Kong, which celebrated in early July the sixth anniversary of its return to the "motherland" - mainland China - from British colonial rule? Now, even if there is one, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, and the leadership of the People's Republic of China (PRC) have not made much of it in their public statements.

From available indications in the first fortnight after the territory's anniversary celebrations, this "democratic" upsurge has been of a kind that Western supporters of the "democratic lobby" in that territory may not have quite anticipated. The Central government in Beijing has, by mid-July, turned the focus alternatively on both aspects of the principle of "one country, two systems". Under this framework, Hong Kong can retain its distinctive post-colonial political and economic identity within the PRC's overarching "socialism with Chinese characteristics" for a specified period. When the protest rallies prompted Tung to defer the Bill's passage in the Legislative Council, China scrupulously allowed him that freedom of action in keeping with the sub-text of two systems.

This had something to do with the people-friendly attitude of the new PRC Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, who not only participated in the anniversary celebrations but also delivered what according to regional diplomats and analysts, Beijing saw as the "real big gift" - a free trade agreement between the PRC and its Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Having allowed the territory's "democrats" and "liberals" a free say, Beijing hinted that it would not countenance political activism that might undermine the other sub-text of one unified country. Beijing's refrain is that the social stability and economic development of both Hong Kong and the mainland should determine their political evolution as one unified country.

It is in this light that Tung has, by responding to the peaceful "protests", amended three key aspects of the Bill. These relate to the abrogation of powers of the police to search persons and premises without a court warrant, the admissibility of the plea of "public interest" in cases related to "disclosure of official information", and the differential treatment meted out to Hong Kong-based groups with links to an organisation that might have been banned on the mainland.

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