HONG KONG, 1997-2002

Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 13

When Chinese President Jiang Zemin arrives in Hong Kong on June 30 for what could be his last official visit to the Special Administrative Region (SAR), he should have ample reason to feel pleased.

A wave of patriotism seems to be sweeping the land. Newspapers can’t find enough space to run messages congratulating Beijing and the SAR on the fifth anniversary of the July 1, 1997 transition. Preparations are underway for festivities such as a performance by the People’s Liberation Army song and dance troupe, as well as a gaudy display of fireworks on Handover Day. More important, Falun Gong protesters will be very much out of harm’s way. Top cadres of Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security have told the SAR police that demonstrators, particularly Falun Gong affiliates, must be out of Jiang’s earshot or field of vision. As of early June, Hong Kong’s immigration authorities have increased vigilance to ensure that U.S.-based Chinese dissidents will be barred from the SAR.

Jiang and his Politburo colleagues, however, will be happiest about the fact that there are now institutional–and legal–means to ensure that the SAR does not and cannot become a base of subversion. Power will be concentrated as never before in the hands of Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing’s handpicked chief executive, who has felt beholden to Beijing ever since a Chinese loan in the 1980s helped bring his family business back from the brink of bankruptcy. In the second half of 2001, about the time that Beijing decided to give Tung a second term, Jiang’s experts on Hong Kong also concocted a major change in Hong Kong’s constitutional arrangement: the introduction of an accountability or “ministerial” system whereby Tung will pick fourteen ministerial-level policy secretaries. Moreover, the British-educated Tung has been advised to expand his Executive Council (Exco), or kitchen cabinet, to accommodate more “patriotic” businessmen as well as pro-Beijing politicians.

The ministerial system, which will come into effect on July 1, is a major departure, because all along almost all secretary-level senior officials have been members of the civil service, and civil servants are supposed to be politically neutral. Under this system, however, Tung has a free hand in recruiting senior staff from either the private or the public sector. If he wants to retain a senior civil servant as secretary, that official has to resign from the civil service. Most important, the “ministers” answer only to Tung and serve at his pleasure.

As of this writing, Tung has named a number of his close friends as secretaries. Most of the private-sector appointees are well-known figures who enjoy Beijing’s trust. For example, two of the new secretaries are members of the prestigious Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, sometimes known as the “Upper House” of the Chinese parliament: Dr Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, who will look after education; and Dr Patrick Ho Chi-ping, who will head the Home Affairs Bureau. Quite a number of appointees are the equivalents of China’s “princelings.” Like Tung himself, they are the scions of established, prominent families.

Tung has expanded Exco from twelve to twenty members. The most significant change is the induction of the heads of two pro-government political parties. One is Tsang Yok-sing, chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). The other is James Tien Pei-chun, chairman of the business-oriented Liberal Party, many of whose members have sizeable investments in the mainland. The two appointments will make it almost certain that Tung’s policies can be rammed through the sixty-member Legislative Council (Legco), where the dozen-odd pro-democracy legislators will be clearly outgunned. As is the case during his first term, Tung is expected to neglect–and marginalize–the democrats during his second term, which runs into 2007.

According to a cadre familiar with Beijing’s Hong Kong policies, the CCP leadership has boosted Tung’s powers out of fear that otherwise he may “lose control.” “Beijing believes in the conspiracy theory that Tung was ineffective in his first few years in office because he had encountered opposition from powerful civil-service officials such as Chief Secretary Anson Chan,” the cadre said. “The Chinese leadership fears there are still ‘pro-West’ civil servants who have reservations about serving Beijing. The ministerial system will ensure that the powers of senior civil servants are curtailed.”

Anson Chan, known as “Hong Kong’s conscience,” has consistently opposed the politicization of the civil service. She has also run afoul of Tung–and Beijing–because of her opposition to draconian measures to muzzle the Falun Gong and other “anti-Chinese, subversive groups” in Hong Kong. In opinion polls, however, Chan has consistently beaten Tung, whose latest rating–52.5 percent–is low by Hong Kong standards. It is significant that after Chan retired one year earlier than normal in early 2001, she has refused to back Tung’s “re-election” for a second term.

At the same time, Beijing–and the Tung administration–is expected to enact legislation next year to embody Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (essentially a mini-constitution). The article says the SAR should pass laws to forbid acts of subversion and sedition against Beijing, stop theft of state secrets and prohibit foreign political organizations from conducting activities in Hong Kong or forming ties with the SAR’s political entities. The current secretary for justice, Elsie Leung, who has a long history of intimate ties with Beijing, has just had her term of office extended for two years so that she can supervise the drafting and enactment of the antisubversion legislation. Chinese sources said legal drafters in Beijing had already come up with early versions of the feared statute.

Szeto Wah, a pro-democracy legislator and key organizer of the annual gathering to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre, said that he and his colleagues were not afraid that the new law would be employed to stop activities such as the June 4 candlelight vigil. However, it is possible that the legislation could be used to ban groups that support dissidents on the mainland, to rein in the media as well as to curtail the activities of Western–particularly American–NGOs and human rights watchdogs in Hong Kong. As out-going U.S. Consul General Michael Klosson pointed out, “there are fears that [the antisubversion law] could become a device to limit discussion or activities deemed sensitive to the mainland.”

Tung and his high-paid spin-doctors have, of course defended the series of disturbing events that have taken place or are about to occur. On the key issue of the ministerial system, the chief executive has reiterated that “the accountability system is not an attempt to increase my power or to bring in yes-men.” His critics, however, have pointed out that ministerial systems have worked only in countries or cities with direct elections. According to Democratic Legco member Dr. Yeung Sum, under the new system, “officials will be accountable only to Tung, [not] to the legislature or the public.”

Given Tung’s tendency to favor cronies and “princelings,” it is questionable whether the system will achieve Beijing’s goal of improving the chief executive’s leadership qualities. It is no secret that Beijing began to have doubts about Tung’s administrative abilities very early on in his first term. Premier Zhu Rongji was being unusually blunt last September, when he pointed out that the SAR administration was given to “discussing things without making a decision–and failing to take action even after a decision has been made.” The big question for Tung’s second term is whether as a result of the concentration of powers, the unpopular chief executive can really get his act together and spell out clear-cut directions for Hong Kong’s economic and political development.

So far, Tung is having a relatively smooth ride because resistance to efforts to “sinicize” Hong Kong politics has been weak among the SAR’s increasily docile silent majority. It is difficult for the democratic forces to rally public support for their opposition to Tung’s–and Beijing’s–machinations partly because of the depressed economy. With a record unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, most Hong Kongers are looking north of the border for business and job prospects. One of the most important developments in Hong Kong post-1997 is the SAR’s economic integration with the Pearl River Delta–as well as growing dependence on the mainland.

Partly because of its failure to restructure the economy, the Tung administration has lobbied hard for a series of dispensations from Beijing: allowing more mainland tourists to come to Hong Kong; lowering or abolishing tariffs on mainland-bound Hong Kong goods; encouraging mainland companies to buy properties in the SAR; encouraging mainland companies to list in the Hong Kong stock market–and mainland investors to buy Hong Kong stocks. For lack of viable alternatives, most Hong Kong residents seem resigned to the fact that in return for the central government’s largesse, they may have to settle for a slower pace of democratization–as well as a curtailment of civil liberties.

Many observers fear, however, that excessive dependence on China would be detrimental to “one country, two systems” as well as “a high degree of autonomy”–which are Beijing’s pledges for the SAR. As City University of Hong Kong business Professor Li Shaomin pointed out, economic dependence on the mainland could encourage a “culture of compliance, a tendency for the Hong Kong elite to curry favor with Beijing and to anticipate Beijing’s wishes.” Or as Singapore-based Sinologist Zheng Yongnian indicated, one casualty of economic integration with the mainland could be Hong Kong’s unique, quasi-independent identity, as well as its proud tradition of hacking out a path of its own. With Hong Kong yielding more and more of its initiatives to China, Dr Zheng said: “It is not an exaggeration to say that Hong Kong has already become a half state-owned enterprise.”

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.