Rather like George Bush and his division of the world into “Us and Them,” China has stopped trying to persuade the people of Hong Kong to abandon their hopes for democracy and has warned them of realities as they are seen from Beijing. These realities include increasing pressure on Taiwan.
Not long ago a “senior Chinese leader” told some pro-Beijing journalists in Hong Kong: “I have a sword. Normally, I would not use it. Now it is the democrats who force me to use it.” When asked what he might do with the sword he said, “Please note that the Basic Law [Hong Kong’s mini-Constitution] has provided for the dissolution of the legislature.”
It is no coincidence that this threat comes just before the March election in Taiwan, where, Beijing fears, a victory for President Chen Shui-bian would be the penultimate step to a declaration of independence. China’s threats to Taiwan are blunt: On December 3, Major General Peng Guangquan and senior Colonel Luo Yuan listed the losses that China would be willing to sustain if it became necessary to attack Taiwan. These included “necessary” casualties, loss of the Olympics, a deterioration in foreign relations, and an economic recession.
In Beijing’s eyes, these dangers posed by Taiwan and Hong Kong are part of a “splittist” whole. In September of this year half the sixty seats in the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) come up for direct election; the remainder are chosen indirectly from “functional constituencies.” Given Hong Kong’s present political climate, democrats could win a majority in LegCo. This is seen in Beijing as a seditious prelude to the choice of the next chief executive, who will succeed the despised C.H. Tung. Many in Hong Kong want the chief executive to be directly elected, not selected by a body handpicked by Beijing.
The senior official pulled no punches. Those calling for representative democracy, he cautioned, were “totally ignorant” of how China operates. And, he added: “The more you push, the greater resistance will be put up by the central government.” Nor could there be any compromise–“none of the democrats are trustworthy.”
All this is fallout from the demonstration that took place last July, when half a million people protested against a proposed anti-sedition law. The demonstration was so powerful–and so unexpected by the government and its supporters–that Mr. Tung was obliged to withdraw the legislation. Part of the reason for Mr. Tung’s retreat was that some of his closest associates, who had been summoned to Beijing, advised him not to press the sedition issue. This gave the impression that China was prepared to be not only patient but flexible. Such apparent flexibility gave rise to calls from Hong Kong’s democratic leaders for more extensive local democracy, calls that were carefully phrased to ensure they contained no hints of autonomy for the city.
It was noted at the time, however, but not seriously enough, that a Chinese official cautioned, “if you don’t treasure the current stability, I’m worried that a turbulent situation will occur.” In Beijing, “turmoil” is a heavily-freighted concept, one that implies direct threats to the Party. And as in Tiananmen in June of 1989, at which time “turmoil” was used as the justification, such threats can, when necessary, be thwarted with overwhelming force. Indeed, before long, in a move barely noticed in Hong Kong, Beijing appointed Politburo Standing Committee member Zeng Qinghong, a famously tough character, to direct a “central leading group” with “responsibility” for Hong Kong. Such groups are indicators that Beijing believes trouble is looming.
Beijing has rolled out its biggest ideological and rhetorical gun–the words of Deng Xiaoping. According to the official news agency Xinhua, “In June 1984, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made famous remarks on the concept of ‘one country, two systems.’ One country, two systems means that within the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the main body of the nation will maintain the socialist system, while Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan continue under the capitalist system, and the aim is to fulfil peaceful reunification and maintain stability and prosperity in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Deng also put forward the concept of ‘Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong,’ saying ‘patriots, the main part of Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong, should respect the nation and sincerely uphold the country’s resumption of the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong’ and should not damage Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
The notion of “patriots”–who and what they are, who they aren’t, and how they should behave–is now Beijing’s key test for obedience in Hong Kong. But patriotism has also become a debatable matter among Hong Kong’s chattering classes. Each new utterance of “patriot” is now examined in the city for nuance, hidden meaning, punctuation, open threat, signs of concession, or looming red light. Which Beijing leader has spoken, what is his background, which faction is he in? Why has President Hu Jintao not spoken, and when he does what will he say; and will that be the last word, whatever that word may be? If President Chen is reelected, will that bode ill for Hong Kong?
It is impossible to underestimate the neuralgic importance of the Taiwan connection. It is sometimes assumed that Beijing will not risk American involvement if Taiwan proves incapable of defending itself. This is not the assumption in high-ranking American military and intelligence circles. At a recent meeting in Oxford, men whose job it is to estimate the Chinese threat to Taiwan and the possible American response spoke of their fears of a collision if Beijing thinks Taiwan may slip altogether from its grasp.
These analysts stated that Beijing would feel it had no choice but to attack Taiwan if the Communist Party feared it would lose it legitimacy by avoiding a conflict. It was noted at the Oxford meeting that Beijing had underestimated the speed of Taiwan’s democratic reforms and the determination of President Chen to stress Taiwan’s “sovereignty,” if not outright independence. Such surprise could be translated into military action, either as a demonstration for effect against an outlying Taiwan-governed island, or an outright attack on Taipei’s electronic command control system or on its airfields.
If these attacks on Taiwan itself proved decisive, several of the American experts at Oxford said, the United States would, in the words of one of them, “take the war to the mainland,” including air strikes on missile-launching bases and even on Chinese cities.
It appears that Beijing also underestimated the strength of Hong Kong’s desire for democracy. It has now escalated its rhetoric about patriotism to the point of naming Hong Kong citizens as virtual traitors. In Beijing’s present mood, before the Taiwan election, it can no longer be assumed that the mainland authorities will not take direct action in Hong Kong, including the abolition of the legislature. It is not clear how Beijing’s “sword” would be used, but it is clear that it is no longer firmly in its scabbard.
In the People’s Republic of China, “patriot” is one of those words like “friend,” which have altogether different meanings elsewhere. They mean, inside China, that one accepts the authority of the Party, even though what the Party is saying at the moment may be different from what it said yesterday. This was vividly clear in Beijing in the spring of 1973. On the eve of President Nixon’s visit, one of the most vilified men in the Chinese lexicon of abuse suddenly became an honored guest. Avenues, factories, hospitals, airports and schools, once called “Anti-Imperialist,” suddenly became “Friendship.” And when asked why this American president, lately so hated, was coming to China, the reply from every Chinese, all of them well-rehearsed, was, “He wanted to come, so Chairman Mao welcomed him.”
A commentator in the People’s Daily has observed that the Party demanded “acknowledgement of socialism as the country’s main body.” Abandoning socialism with Chinese characteristics led by the Communist Party of China will “end Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.” This is a ludicrous proposition but it demonstrates only too clearly Beijing’s fear of even limited democracy. To the Communist Party it is an infection–worse than SARS or Bird Flu–that could seep over the border to Canton and Shanghai.
What Professor Michael Yahuda of the London School of Economics has remarked about Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan applies equally to Hong Kong: “Beijing should be encouraged to reshape its Taiwan policy by paying more attention to making attractive offers to the people of Taiwan. If Beijing were to pay even half as much time and effort to that side of its policy as it does to the coercive side, it would ease much of the anxiety about China’s future at home and abroad.” China diminishes itself by bullying Hong Kong. But such is the force these days of nationalism–a desperate emotion that resembles the Russians and Chechnya–that Beijing may persevere. It is a dangerous moment for both Hong Kong and Taiwan.