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Hong Kong's Autonomy in Question

Asia: Four years after its return to Chinese rule, some critics worry that the territory's overly cautious, timid leaders may erode its freedoms.

July 01, 2001|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — The people of Hong Kong mark the fourth anniversary of their return to Chinese sovereignty today amid an uneasy sense that the biggest threat to their political autonomy may not be from Beijing but from within the territory.

Government critics--and there are many--claim that the region's leadership is ill-advised, overly cautious and lacking in vision.

"The major problem we have is the mentality of Hong Kong's ruling elites," said Sonny Lo, a Hong Kong University political scientist studying the territory's transition from British to Chinese rule. "They try to avoid mistakes so they become overcautious and timid. This mentality is devastating to Hong Kong.

"The state of Hong Kong's autonomy has definitely been curbed."

Although the formula known as "one country, two systems," which guarantees Western-style political freedoms for Hong Kong, remains largely intact, a series of developments in recent months has added to worries that the ability of the territory's leaders to maintain political distance from Beijing is diminishing.

Critics say the latest example of the leadership's poor judgment has come in government-proposed legislation aimed at better defining the framework for electing the territory's chief executive. Pro-democratic members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council say they were stunned to discover in the bill wording that would set down in writing Beijing's right to remove the chief executive under any circumstances.

Debate over that provision recently boiled over as a respected, normally reserved lawmaker, Audrey Eu, unleashed an emotional outburst. She accused the government of trying to undermine the territory's autonomy with the very measures aimed at protecting it.

"Many of the articles that you cite as your justification are about our high degree of autonomy, [but] you cite them now to betray our autonomy," she shouted at a senior government official before stomping out of the chamber. "It is not just ironic but indeed rubbish."

Democratic Party Chairman Martin Lee called the proposed wording "very dangerous."

Despite such intense opposition, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa doggedly has defended the proposal, arguing that it is within the framework of the territory's de facto constitution, called the Basic Law.

The flare-up comes after a series of actions by Tung and senior members of his government that has unsettled many of the territory's pro-democratic politicians and human rights advocates.

They cite two examples in which Tung appeared excessive in trying to anticipate Beijing's desires: his description of the Falun Gong spiritual movement as an "evil cult," and the government's use of blacklists to deny some foreign practitioners of the movement entry into the territory recently during a conference attended by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Lo says that public pressure is the most important factor in preventing further deterioration of the territory's autonomy but that the number of those willing to speak up appears to be dwindling. He says the vast majority of those in the territory have yet to feel threatened personally by events.

"I think the people of Hong Kong will tolerate some political decay as long as they enjoy a degree of freedom and manage to keep the same lifestyle," he said.

Political analysts also criticize prominent Democratic Party politicians for failing to offer a more dynamic leadership.

"They are ossified and old," Lo charged. "They've failed to promote young leaders who can win popular support."

Against the backdrop of such assessments, the State Department recently decided to monitor the territory's level of autonomy for a fourth year by compiling an annual report for submission to Congress. The practice, used to determine whether Hong Kong deserves the more relaxed trade rules it receives from the United States, was supposed to end last year.

U.S. consular spokesman Robert Laing said the decision to extend the reporting "reflects our continued interest in the high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong."

Not everyone sees a threat to Hong Kong's freedoms.

David Dodwell, a political analyst for the Hong Kong public affairs consulting firm Golin Harris International, argues that the "one country, two systems" formula is healthy, largely thanks to Tung's actions, which have eased tensions with the mainland government.

"I don't see any evidence of Beijing's involvement or any interest in wanting to be involved," he said. "As a 20-year resident [of Hong Kong], I see no perceptible change in the environment in which I work."

Statistics would appear to support Dodwell's contention. After years of suffering a net outflow of population, more people are now immigrating to Hong Kong than leaving. Also, the $64 billion in foreign direct investment in the territory last year is about double the previous one-year record--a figure inspired at least in part by the expected impact of China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

"Those statistics," Dodwell said, "tell the story."

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