A complex task

Print edition : July 15, 2005

With Donald Tsang's induction as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong upon Tung Chee Hwa's resignation, the Chinese special administrative region seems to be entering a crucial phase in its political evolution.

P.S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

Donald Tsang announces to the media his election as the new Chief Executive.-MIKE CLARKE/AFP

THE Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China seems to be entering a crucial phase of "constitutional" development. The prime issue in focus is that of harmonising the current "political aspirations" of a sizable section of the people of the territory with its undeniable status as China's special but integral part. In essence, such a delicate task defines the political agenda of Hong Kong's new and popular Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, who was elected unopposed to that position on June 16.

The campaign at the people's level for political "reforms" is quite unusual in its orientation. Relevant to this reality is the fact that the British colonial rulers did not grant their "subjects" in Hong Kong any political system that could somehow be perceived to be in tune with "Western-style democracy".

It was almost on the eve of the transfer of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997, that the British colonialists, under Chris Patten's "benign" rule, began "sensitising" the people to the idea of "Western-style democracy".

Equally relevant to the political ambience of the current situation in Hong Kong is the view of scholar-observers like Patrick Tyler that Great Britain had indeed transferred the territory to China "without consulting" the population concerned. This view has some resonance in Hong Kong.

It is of course futile now, except as a matter of genuine historical research, to evaluate the hidden political agenda that the British imperialists had apparently sought to implement in Hong Kong before handing it over to China. However, the fact remains that the ongoing campaign for "democracy" is often seen as a sequel to, or as a crucial aspect of, the Chris Patten "legacy". Obviously, such a perspective will not negate the authenticity of the "pro-democracy" aspirations of those campaigners in Hong Kong who mean what they demand.

Nonetheless, it is in this contemporary context that the pace of "political reforms" in Hong Kong will come to be determined by not only its people and rulers but also the Central government in Beijing.

The political ties between Hong Kong and the rest of China have remained quite complex since 1997 in spite of the obvious ethnic kinship. This is not entirely because of the lingering impact of the old and wily games of the British imperialists or, for that matter, the ubiquitous "influence" of the United States as the leading military-political player in the Asia-Pacific region.

Part of the reason for the complexity can be traced to the economic links between Hong Kong and the rest of China that date back to the last few years of colonial rule in that territory. As an observer colourfully described the emergence of the market-oriented economy in China, the first signs were like "blades of grass in the cracks of a sidewalk" and these grew like "a forest", whose roots were nurtured by the "capitalists of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore" and increasingly the Chinese diaspora across the world.

At another and a more political level, the 1989 "pro-democracy" activists at Tiananmen Square in Beijing were reported to have received some financial backing from their "supporters" in Hong Kong.

Tung Chee Hwa, who resigned citing declining health as the reason.-BOBBY YIP/ POOL/AFP

An aspect of Hong Kong's "utility" to the West, during the territory's colonial period and even now, is its strategic location for purposes of playing out the larger game of "democracy versus communism". While the Central government in Beijing is obviously conscious of this strategic position of Hong Kong, since regaining sovereignty over it, this international dimension, too, complicates the already complex ties between the territory and the rest of China.

IT is in this milieu that Donald Tsang will have to navigate as he administers Hong Kong under the governing principle of "One Country, Two Systems".

As Hong Kong's former Chief Secretary, well recognised for his suave demeanour and administrative abilities during the dying years of colonial rule and thereafter too, Tsang is beginning his term without having to grapple with any major controversies over his own "credentials".

The ease with which he won the Chief Executive's post contrasts sharply with the manner in which the critics of his predecessor, Tung Chee Hwa, kept up the pressure on him until he resigned on March 10 citing as reason his inability to carry on in the face of his declining health.

The Hong Kong skyline. An aspect of the territory's "utility" to the West, during the colonial period and even now, is its strategic location which would help in playing the larger game of "democracy versus communism".-HONG KONG TOURISM BOARD

Tung, widely dubbed by his critics as Beijing's "yes-man", had governed Hong Kong for nearly eight years. The transition from colonial rule to the unique political experiment of "One Country, Two Systems" would have tested anyone in Tung's place. But Tung faltered in allowing an impression to gain currency, especially during the "pro-democracy" protest rallies of 2003 and 2004, that he was out of sync with sizable sections in the territory.

While Tung's opponents blamed this on his cheerful readiness to please the "masters in Beijing", there was also not much of a serious debate in Hong Kong itself on how to make its governing principle operational over time. In a critical sense, the principle, enshrined in the Basic Law for China-Hong Kong relations, was the basis on which the British vacated the territory in favour of China, in the first place.

The duality of political systems was agreed upon for a period of 50 years from 1997. A truly significant issue, often left vague or inadequately addressed, is whether Hong Kong has been guaranteed an evolution towards full-fledged "Western-style democracy" and, if so, what the timeline set for this purpose is.

Tsang's apparently greater familiarity than Tung's with "Western ideas", and with the nuances of the Basic Law as also the principle of "One Country, Two Systems", will now be tested.

Another difference that observers have already drawn in respect of the two leaders relates to their equations with Beijing. Tung has been elevated to a key position in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. Tsang, on the other hand, is expected for now to serve as Chief Executive for about two years - Tung's second five-year term in office was to expire in 2007. Regional observers have interpreted this as a sign of Beijing's inclination to place Tsang on political probation in the first place.

While Tsang's political task is cut out, a critical aspect that might impinge on his term is the existing electoral system in Hong Kong. He was nominated by 674 members of the 800-strong Election Committee, the electoral college in all but name. As he was the only validly nominated candidate in a field of six, under the election guidelines that were revised in May, Tsang found himself declared elected unopposed. With the nomination of Tsang, the stage seems to have been set for a crucial phase in Hong Kong's political evolution.

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