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Beijing Taking Harder Line on Hong Kong's Democracy Push

March 05, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — Beijing's shrill rhetoric toward Hong Kong in recent weeks has at times sounded more like a vestige of China's infamous Cultural Revolution than that of a nation fast shedding its Communist ideology in favor of a free-market economy.

Mainland officials have warned Hong Kong's pro-democracy groups in no uncertain terms that loyalty belongs above all to Beijing, not to the separate system of rule that has allowed the former British colony to function as a semiautonomous political region since returning to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

This week, the official English-language newspaper China Daily cautioned that if democratic candidates were to win a majority in September's Hong Kong Legislative Council elections, the territory's executive-led form of government could collapse.

Mainland officials have also launched a bitterly divisive debate on the definition of the word "patriot," noting the words of China's late party leader Deng Xiaoping that Hong Kong must be ruled by patriots. In the course of these exchanges, several prominent Hong Kong democrats have been denounced as being unpatriotic, in words reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution that began in the late 1960s.

One of them, former Democratic Party leader Martin Lee, testified Thursday on developments in Hong Kong at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing in Washington that was condemned by Beijing as American meddling in China's internal affairs. Senior Chinese officials referred to Lee and two colleagues who traveled with him as "clowns," and dismissed the senators as "Western Buddhas" making "senseless remarks."

Beijing's tough stance marks an abrupt shift from its more measured response to Hong Kong's political turmoil last summer when at least half a million residents took to the streets to protest plans for a controversial anti-subversion law that human rights activists argued would limit freedom of speech in the territory. The bill was quickly withdrawn, and central authorities showered Hong Kong with economic benefits.

The new approach comes amid Beijing's frustration at its inability to control events in the territory, where pro-democracy groups enjoy growing support for their goal of electing Hong Kong's next chief executive through universal suffrage in 2007.

Hong Kong's current chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was chosen by a small group of the territory's elite in close consultation with Beijing. A string of policy setbacks and an inability to inspire public confidence about the future have made Tung a major disappointment here and raised questions about the system that elected him.

Hong Kong's Basic Law sets the popular election of the chief executive as an eventual goal, but Beijing insists that this should come decades from now, if at all.

The mainland's tougher line also coincides with democracy-related problems for Beijing in Taiwan, where public sentiment against reunification with the mainland is growing and President Chen Shui-bian -- a leader China has done its best to isolate since he was elected four years ago -- stands a strong chance at winning a second term in elections scheduled for March 20.

China's Communist leaders are uncomfortable with democratic movements, seeing them as unpredictable and potentially unstable. Political analysts are convinced that Beijing has linked the issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and that hard-liners loyal to former President Jiang Zemin are influencing policy.

"It is significant that neither [President Hu Jintao nor Premier Wen Jiabao] have joined in any hard, crass rhetoric," noted Michael DeGolyer, a Hong Kong Baptist University political scientist who tracks public attitudes in the territory. "The Jiang faction tends towards brinkmanship."

In his Senate testimony Thursday, Lee praised both Hu and Wen as enlightened leaders.

Despite the intimidation, Hong Kong democracy advocates say their agenda remains unchanged, with their near-term focus on the September Legislative Council elections, when they hope to gain seats and, with them, greater political power.

"We're concentrating on the elections and how to change the current dysfunctional system," said civil rights lawyer Gladys Li, a leading voice for constitutional reform in the territory. "We hope people will not be distracted by all this."

On Wednesday, organizers of July's protest said they would mark the anniversary of that event with another demonstration. Organizer Rose Wu said this year's July 1 protest would maintain pressure for political reform in the territory.

So far, jawboning tactics seem to have achieved little for Beijing. A poll released this week by Hong Kong University's Public Opinion Program showed that the number of local residents expressing trust in the mainland government fell by 7 percentage points in two months, to 43%.

A sag in the stock market is blamed in part on the political tensions, and the U.S. Congress has refocused its attention on Hong Kong for the first time in several years.

Meanwhile, public backing for Tung, who began his second five-year term in 2002, has failed to improve, with the same poll showing his approval rating unchanged at 13%. He has been abandoned by much of the business community that once formed a core element of his support, and he has become an increasingly remote figure, even within the government.

In an apparent attempt to ease pressure from the democrats to reform the system, mainland commentators have started to blame Tung for Hong Kong's difficulties.

"He has not used the power given to him under the Basic Law," declared Xu Chongde, a mainland legal expert who helped draft the document.

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