Politics of protest

Beijing sees a Western role in the spate of public protests in Hong Kong against the introduction of a new security Bill.

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa.-PETER PARKS/AFP

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa.-PETER PARKS/AFP


Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa.-PETER PARKS/AFP

THE political status of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was settled six years ago. Hong Kong, a former British colony, became an integral part of China under the latter’s “one country, two systems” policy. While the PRC continues to be governed by the Communist Party of China (CPC), Hong Kong, which was never allowed to practise democracy by the British imperialists, retains a distinctive political system that is suited to capitalist economic practices.

Under the norms that governed the transfer of the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong can retain its political and economic individuality for a period of 50 years. In recent months, some proactive political activists and their followers in Hong Kong have been hinting at the possibility of charting a new path that might, in effect, delink the territory from China at some stage in the future.

Beijing is aware of the need to take imaginative steps to preserve its overall control in such a political ambience. It has increasingly come to suspect the United States of encouraging some vocal sections of the population of Hong Kong to confront the Chinese leadership over the political system in that territory. In a technical sense, the current political debate in Hong Kong is not about the legality and sustainability of China’s continued possession of the territory, but about the perceived rights of its people to re-invent their free-market-oriented polity, with or without any direct reference to the Basic Law, which governs the territory’s equation with the Chinese mainland.

On New Year’s Day, at least one lakh people, held a `pro-democracy’ rally in Hong Kong, which, according to the organisers, demonstrated “people’s power’‘. The rally, a peaceful yet vocal event, marked a novel phase in the politics of public protest in Hong Kong.

In July last year, thousands of Hong Kong residents organised rallies to try and compel the territory’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive, Tung Chee Hwa, to abandon plans to get legislative approval for an `anti-subversion’ Bill. The rallies attracted much international attention, at a time when the newly incumbent Chinese leaders were beginning to come to terms with the human and social problems caused by an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Both the leaders in Beijing and the Hong Kong Chief Executive, who is widely believed to owe his position to them, took a pragmatic decision to let the protesters make their point.

This gave Beijing and Tung Chee Hwa a chance to assess the intensity of the protests and the extent of their appeal among the people of Hong Kong. Following consultations with the leaders in Beijing, Tung Chee Hwa shelved his plan to enact a security law that the protesters and their supporters clearly saw as an instance of excessive supervision in the name of quelling subversive activities. As the protest resulted in the withdrawal of the anti-subversion Bill, the drama of including certain administrative changes, which involved the question whether these were effected by Beijing or under its overall guidance, became an immaterial issue.

Significantly, the July protests in Hong Kong occurred in the context of a goodwill visit to the territory by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He had, on that occasion, firmed up an agreement on economic cooperation between Hong Kong and the PRC. Hong Kong, which retains its exclusive identity as an `economy’ (not to be confused with a polity or sovereign state), is an independent member of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum. If the July protest was, in part, aimed at catching the attention of Wen Jiabao and other Chinese leaders such as President Hu Jintao and Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin, the activists achieved their purpose.

The New Year’s Day protest, however, was qualitatively different from the events in July. During the interregnum, even as Tung Chee Hwa agreed to reintroduce the security law after full consultations with the people of Hong Kong, political activists in the territory expanded the charter of their demands. Although these political activists have not found an effective and charismatic `leader’, they have demonstrated their ability to organise a political rally. Now, the primary focus of the protest has shifted to demands that centre on a full dose of democratisation.

The timing of the New Year’s Day protest has come in for scrutiny not only by Beijing but by diplomats and independent analysts in the Asia Pacific region. It was only on December 9 that U.S. President George W. Bush, while receiving Wen Jiabao at the White House (Frontline, January 2), let out some definitive China friendly sound bites. Speaking on the Taiwan issue, which seemed to be assuming the proportions of an international crisis, Bush asked Beijing and Taipei to refrain from saying or doing anything that might alter the status quo. Although it was evidentthat Bush did leave himself sufficient political space to manoeuvre as regards the Taiwan issue, his statement reassured China and took some wind out of the political sails of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian although it did not stop him from moving towards a referendum on Taiwan’s political status, now slated for March.

However, within two days of Bush’s China friendly remarks, the U.S. Consul-General in Hong Kong, James Keith, endorsed the politics of protest in the territory. The issues of Taiwan and Hong Kong are not really comparable, given that the former is still outside the political framework of the PRC, despite an overwhelming international endorsement of the `one-China’ principle that places Taiwan squarely within the future jurisdiction of Beijing. However, Keith’s public speech on December 11, 2003, left little room for doubt on whether the U.S. would pressure China on the Hong Kong question even though it appears to be largely even-handed, even slightly tilted in favour of Beijing on the issue of Taiwan.

The Hong Kong Office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry protested against Keith’s “irresponsible remarks’‘. Among other things, Keith said: “The [Hong Kong] government’s dialogue with the people continues [after it began in the context of Tung Chee Hwa’s decision to shelve the anti-subversion Bill], and [the dialogue] seems likely to succeed in identifying steps to refine the political system [in Hong Kong]. Several parties represented in Legco [Hong Kong’s legislature] have called for the change to election of the Chief Executive in 2007 by universal suffrage, for example, as previewed in the Basic Law. It seems entirely natural that there should be such a debate. `One country, two systems’ is a broad outline, after all, not a precise road map. Hong Kong, since it has taken on a unique, highly autonomous status, will continually face the problem of defining and redefining its economic and political structure. It is the United States’ belief that history has more than demonstrated that the best way to respond to the will of the people is through universal suffrage. As the Hong Kong government looks at ways to better respond to the Hong Kong people, we believe that the best next step [following the shelving of the security Bill] is to begin full and public consultations on democratisation [of Hong Kong] as soon as possible. If the distinctions in the `one country, two systems’ formula were all black and white, perhaps it could be simpler. Perhaps refinement or improvement of the political structure [in Hong Kong] would [then] be unnecessary. But I would venture that there is and will continue to be [a] considerable grey area associated with Hong Kong’s autonomous status, and this will necessitate ongoing discussion between the people and their government [in Hong Kong]’‘.

While Tung Chee Hwa offered to hold consultations with Beijing on the issue of “constitutional evolution’‘ in Hong Kong in his policy speech on January 7, he has not ruled out the possibility of ascertaining the will of the territory’s people. A task force of officials, he noted, would study the issue in its entirety both in the context of Hong Kong and in relation to the territory’s constitutional contacts with Beijing. With the U.S. State Department too reportedly echoing Keith’s views in some measure, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has, on a different track, reminded Washington that Hong Kong’s political future is China’s internal affair.

As far as the political future of Hong Kong is concerned, one relevant issue, raised by the historian Wang Gungwu, in a different context, is the perceived authenticity of “the Chineseness of China’‘ as distinct from the identity of Chinese outside the mainland. A Western perspective, as outlined by Ross Terrill in a controversial work on “the new Chinese empire’‘, is that the Hong Kong issue, viewed as “a synergy between Chinese civilisation and foreign forces’‘, is a `test’ of the Chinese leaders’ ability to “withstand the influence of globalisation’‘.

The writer was in Singapore recently.
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