Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 14

By Harvey Stockwin

First and last, the July 1 protest march, in which half a million Hong Kongers marched three miles in orderly nonviolent protest, despite hours of waiting in the torrid heat and the densely packed streets and park, brought Hong Kong’s wheel of fate full circle.

The last time there was such a huge, disciplined display of People Power on Hong Kong island was when a million or so Hong Kongers took to the streets after June 4, 1989. They were protesting the Beijing Massacre, thereby destroying forever the myth that Hong Kong was inhabited by a politically apathetic citizenry.

That was a moment of justifiable though sad pride in Hong Kong. But it stimulated understandable, though unjustified, fears in Zhongnanhai.

China’s communist leaders had suffered many shocks in the spring of 1989. As demonstrations erupted across the nation, following the lead of the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, the leadership realized that the Chinese Communist Party was not as beloved by the people as they had thought it was. For this reason the Beijing Massacre was aimed at intimidating demonstrators across China, and at inhibiting their subversive emotions.

The other shock was to discover that Hong Kong was not the quiescent colony that Britain had created and was to hand over in 1997. So final changes were made to Article 23 of the Basic Law–which was itself still being drafted–for the promised Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).

According to the draft that had been finalized earlier in February of 1989, the new SAR government was required only to make laws that “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, or theft of state secrets.”

That was a sweeping enough directive, but after the events that occurred in Hong Kong in June 1989, the Basic Law became even more draconian. That is, both subversion and xenophobia were added to treason, sedition, secession and theft of state secrets. The changes clearly made Article 23 even more of a political poisoned chalice for any government trying to enact it.

This all-embracing Article 23 reflected Chinese communist paranoia then. The need to hurriedly enact it today reflects those same fears now.

In Hong Kong, Article 23 increased fears for the future when it was first drafted. It does so again now. Hence the huge July 1 protest demonstration, as the paranoia of 1989 has had its inevitable result in 2003. A politically inept government in Hong Kong unwisely accepted the poisoned chalice; that is a choice that a politically adroit government would have hesitated to make.

The Hong Kong government’s initial moves were questionable (see “Article 23: Tightening The Screws,” China Brief, November 7, 2002). It continued to assume it had public support, thereby provoking popular opposition. So the wheel of fate has come full circle–only this time half a million Hong Kong citizens came out on the streets, not because of events in China, but because of a bill that was about to be passed by the SAR’s Legislative Council.

As the wheel of fate turns, Hong Kong is obsessed with internal controversies and is often in danger of discounting the basic reality: That is, China caused the problem and China is the problem. Thus, there have been many calls from both left and right in Hong Kong for the resignation of SAR Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. But it was Beijing, in the persons of the then President Jiang Zemin and then Foreign Policy Adviser Qian Qichen, which put pressure on the Hong Kong government last year to enact the Article 23 legislation. It was Beijing’s collective leadership, most obviously in the person of President Jiang Zemin, which decided that Mr. Tung Chee-hwa’s form of sycophantic patriotism was the best answer for the problems posed by “Hongkong people ruling Hongkong.” And it was Beijing’s collective leadership that decreed the draconian Article 23 for Hong Kong to enact.

Above all, Beijing is so arrogant politically, and so consumed with the virtue of its own unreformed political system, that it has created the current impasse.

But if China made the strategic mistakes, Hong Kong contributed a number of tactical errors.

The Hong Kong government put all the legal changes contained in Article 23 into one lengthy bill. It made only one attempt at building consensus before the bill itself had finally been drafted. Even then, the administration made a mess in its collating of the many opinions submitted in response to the consultation document.

The government ignored one clear warning sign when 100,000 Hong Kongers marched last December in favor of an additional white paper on the draft bill. Demands for such a white paper (or a white bill) and another public consultation came from all sectors of society and from many leading Hong Kong figures. The demands were so widespread that it seemed impossible for the authorities to deny them. But, in a case of supreme political pigheadedness, they were brushed aside. The government continued to believe–communist style–its own propaganda that everyone supported the bill. It stuck to its original plan of passing the Article 23 bill in July of this year.

Then the portentous SARS health crisis came along, inevitably diverting public attention away from the Article 23 legislation. This development obviously made it imperative to delay the passage of the bill. Instead, the Tung government acted as though it was seeking to use the preoccupation with SARS to sneak the bill through Legco for a hasty, final passage on July 9.

Next, rather than acting to generate interest with proposals for the democratic reform that is mandated for 2007 by Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the government shied away. It seemed to many that the authorities were intent upon pleasing Beijing by relegating any democratic reforms into the dim and distant future. It did this partly by itself organizing opposition to any democratic changes.

Altogether, it has been a hapless political performance by the Tung Administration, one based on the false assumption that the people would be as sycophantic toward Tung as Tung is toward Beijing. The massive July 1 protest march was its deserved reward.

The powers that the Article 23 bill bestows are wide ranging, and some are not even required under Article 23. At one point, the bill evidently required a procedure by Beijing that the Chinese government was not yet authorized to carry out. And as the Hong Kong Bar Association pointed out in a statement issued on July 4, “Some legal concepts and definitions in the bill remain imprecise, with the result that one may be left in doubt as to whether one’s conduct would have infringed the law.”

Worst of all, some of the powers bestowed by the Bill are deeply disturbing, simply because they seem to reflect more what happens in China than what has happened until now in Hong Kong.

The best example of this, and it is a horrifying one, is that any chief superintendent of police was given the power to order any police officer to enter any premises where it is suspected that any evidence relating to any acts of treason, subversion, secession or sedition have been or are being committed, and to seize, detain or remove anything found in those premises. Wide ranging powers for fishing expeditions of this sort belong only in a police state, like that which, sadly, still operates within China.

Despite all these and many other failings, the government still tried to rush ahead and get the bill through its second and third readings on July 9.

The hapless handling of the issue inevitably compounded public fears that Article 23 was being used to increase authoritarianism in Hong Kong. Something akin to spontaneous political combustion created the amazing July 1 phenomenon. Even after that, Tung offered only three hasty amendments (including deletion of those new police powers) and insisted the bill still pass on July 9.

It was only after the pro-business Liberal Party refused to support the bill’s hurried passage, thereby giving the Legco opposition a majority, that Tung reluctantly deferred the bill for the time being. On July 9 some 35,000 demonstrators surrounded the Legco building. They demanded that the bill be submitted only when real democracy had been introduced into Hong Kong.

So Article 23 has stimulated the rebirth of People Power within Hong Kong. This, in turn, could again rouse the CCP’s instinct for repression. As in 1989, so in 2003, deep seated fears of Beijing’s authoritarianism are mixing uneasily with Hong Kong’s fervent democratic hopes.

Harvey Stockwin has been reporting and analyzing Asian developments since 1955. Currently he broadcasts a weekly fifteen-minute talk “Reflections From Asia” for Radio Television Hong Kong. He also contributes to the Japan Times and is the East Asia correspondent of The Times of India.