Beijing Confronts Growing Pro-democracy Sentiment In Hong Kong

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 1

Once again, a rude shock for Beijing. On January 1, close to 100,000 Hong Kong citizens hit the streets to demand universal suffrage elections for the next chief executive (CE) by 2007–and for members of the Legislative Council (LegCo) by 2008. These Special Administrative Region (SAR) residents also told the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities in no uncertain terms that they wanted democracy, not just sweetheart business deals from the motherland.

Beijing–and the administration of its handpicked Hong Kong supremo, CE Tung Chee-hwa–has not learnt the lesson of the great July 1 demonstrations last year. During that watershed event, more than half a million people rallied to oppose the draconian Article 23 National Security Bill and to show their displeasure at six years of misrule by Tung.

The unprecedentedly large scale protests were a nasty surprise for the central leadership. By mid-July, the party Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) decided to set up a Coordinating Leading Group on Hong Kong Affairs (CLGHKA) to deal with SAR matters. It is headed by Vice President Zeng Qinghong; other members include Vice Premier Wu Yi and State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan. Zeng, a PSC member, is a major advisor of ex-president Jiang Zemin, who was responsible for picking Tung as CE. Since one of Zeng’s roles is to preserve the Jiang legacy, including the latter’s Hong Kong policies, the CLGHKA is not in favor of sacking Tung. However, Zeng did bow to reality and decided in August to postpone indefinitely the enactment of the hated national security bill.

However, by and large, the CLGHKA, with the PSC’s consent, has toed the time-honored line that economics can make all the difference in SAR politics. Because they are seen as “economic animals,” it is believed that the antipathy of Hong Kong citizens toward Tung would be tempered if the SARS-devastated economy were to improve and the unemployment rate were to go down. Beijing decided to send what Premier Wen Jiabao called “a big gift” to Hong Kong in the form of a Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA).

According to details of the free trade agreement released in September, 273 products made in Hong Kong would enjoy duty free access to China. Regulations on services sectors–ranging from IT to law and accounting–regarding the establishment of branches in China have also been liberalized. Moreover, Beijing has eased restrictions on citizens visiting Hong Kong as “individual tourists.” The SAR government and real estate companies are lobbying Beijing to lift foreign exchange rules for those visitors who want to buy flats in Hong Kong. The Tung team is also hopeful that Beijing will allow SAR banks to engage in off-shore renminbi business.

To some extent, Beijing’s script seemed to be working reasonably well. Partly thanks to the largesse of the central authorities, the economy picked up by the third quarter of last year–and is likely to have grown by 3 percent to 3.5 percent for the 2003 as a whole. GDP increase in 2004 is projected at around 5 percent. By October, the Hang Seng Stock Market Index had reached its two year high when it surged passed the 12,000 mark. A series of large IPOs by local and mainland companies is scheduled for the Hong Kong bourse in the coming year. The economic upturn has meant a new lease on political life for Tung, whose popularity ratings have picked up by about five percentage points since mid-year.

Beijing’s hope that Hong Kong will always remain what CCP cadres call “an economic city,” however, was shattered by the District Board polls last November, when an unprecedented 44.6 percent of the electorate cast their votes to pick grass roots level representatives. The vote proved to be a Waterloo for the main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). Only 32 percent of the candidates they fielded were successful. By contrast, the pro-democracy parties had a field day. For example, 80 percent of the nominees of the Hong Kong Democracy Party (HKDP) romped home to victory. The results were an unmistakable indication that most Hong Kong residents favor a much faster pace of democracy than Beijing envisages. And, of course, the march of 100,000 people on January 1 has further confirmed the pro-democratic trend set by the District Board polls.

While the turnout on New Year’s Day was much lower than the July 1 tornado, most analysts say it is a clear cut message for Tung–and Beijing–to expedite political reform. Pro-democracy legislator Lee Cheuk-yan said the numbers were smaller this time because such burning issues as the Article 23 legislation had been postponed. However, he anticipated “more pressure on the government because Hong Kong residents have now understood the meaning of people power.” According to veteran political science lecturer Ivan Tsoi, “the central authorities should no longer stick to the superstitious belief that economic measures can solve everything.”

So far, Tung and his senior aides have indicated only that they will be paying close attention to the protestors’ demands. It is well understood, however, that the lame duck CE is but waiting for instructions from the central authorities. Diplomatic analysts in Beijing and Hong Kong said the CCP leadership’s knee jerk reaction was to stick to the cautious line laid down by President Hu Jintao when he met Tung not long after the District Board elections.

On that occasion, Hu indicated that political reform in the SAR must follow a “realistic and gradualist” approach. While he urged Tung to spend more time listening to the voice of the masses, it was clear Hu did not favor a faster pace of democracy. Then came the even more austere remarks by the four so-called Grand Custodians of the Law; they are the judicial scholars involved in the drafting of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. One of the four grandees went so far as to say that for the people of Hong Kong to arrogate to themselves the role of shaping electoral mechanisms would be tantamount to “seeking Hong Kong independence.”

It is also clear, however, that Beijing is toying with different options–and that the door is not closed for some form of a compromise with the SAR’s pro-democracy forces. There are indications that more open minded advisers to Beijing bodies handling Hong Kong Affairs, including the CLGHKA and the ministerial-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, are considering relatively liberal ideas. One is whether some form of communication, if not accommodation, can be reached with the more moderate factions within the democratic coalition in Hong Kong.

Sources close to Beijing’s Hong Kong policy making apparatus said different Hong Kong-related units in the Chinese capital had in recent weeks sent emissaries to the SAR to hold “discreet talk” with important pro-democracy politicians. After the democrats’ landslide victory in last November’s District Board elections, the CLGHK is worried that pro-government parties such as the DAB and the pro-business Liberal Party may not be able to garner a majority of the Legco’s sixty seats in crucial elections set for September.

“If the democrats plus a handful of independents manage to gain control of Legco, the Tung administration will grind to a virtual standstill,” said a Beijing source. He added that Zeng and his colleagues were also aware of the danger that, with Tung totally out of the political game, a direct–and ugly–confrontation was shaping up between the SAR’s pro-democracy forces and the central authorities.

It is to avoid a head-on collision between Beijing and the SAR that the CCP leadership is open to striking some form of a deal with the democrats. The Beijing source said that the first indication of a thaw would be whether a couple or so of democratic legislators would be invited to Beijing at least in an unofficial capacity, for example, as participants in academic conferences.

One problem, of course, is that the so-called democratic coalition is divided into disparate factions. They range from the moderate camp within the Hong Kong Democratic Party (HKDP) to radical groups such as the Frontier and the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF). Since it is street action oriented groupings such as the CHRF that organized the great July 1 demos, the latter have edged out the moderate democrats–represented by HKDP Chairman Yeung Sum and former vice chairman Anthony Cheung–as the main spokesmen for people power with SAR characteristics.

As an inducement for moderate democrats Beijing has, through the DAB and other channels, floated the trial balloon of what pundits are calling “an adulterated direct-election model” for picking the CE in 2007. The modus operandi consists of two stages. First, an electoral or nomination college will nominate four or five candidates with whom the central authorities can live. This electoral college will be bigger than the notorious 800-member chamber that “re-elected” Tung in 2002. And it will have more than a token of pro-democracy representatives. However, through special mechanisms–for example, the requirement that, to become a candidate for CE, a politician will need the support of more nominations than the total number of democracy-oriented electors–Beijing will be confidant about the political qualities and affinity of the successful nominees. Immediately afterwards, universal suffrage polls will be held to pick the CE from among the four or five Beijing-approved candidates.

So far, almost all democratic politicians have decried this two-stage model as “sham democracy.” Liberal cadres and scholars advising Zeng and other top Beijing officials, however, have pointed out that this “two-stage model” is pretty much the maximum concession that the CCP leadership may be willing to make. They argue that the electoral college system will ensure the imperatives implicit in the “one country” concept–while the general elections to be followed will reflect the full spirit of the “two systems.”

Whether Beijing will accept even this watered down version of the popular election of the CE depends on the success with which the HKDP, CHRF and other pro-democracy groups can mobilize enough public support to put maximal pressure on the central authorities. For the time being, most Beijing cadres still hope that Hong Kong voters will put economics before politics. This means that in return for economic benefits derivable from special deals such as the closer economic partnership arrangement with the mainland, SAR residents will heed the warnings of central authorities against an “excessively fast pace” of democracy.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.