No More ‘soft Sell’ For Hong Kong

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 14

Beijing has acted quickly to dash the hopes that the half-a-million-people rally in Hong Kong last week will change the leadership’s hard-line stance toward universal-suffrage elections in the special administrative region (SAR). While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has continued with its public-relations, united-front offensive to win hearts and minds in the territory, it is expected to step up its divide-and-run tactics in order to isolate and marginalize pro-democracy politicians and intellectuals who dare challenge Beijing’s suzerainty.

After the watershed “people power” demonstrations on July 1, 2003 – when at least 600,000 SAR residents hit the streets to voice their discontent to six years of misrule under Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa as well as the national security bill called for by Article 23 of the basic law – Beijing almost immediately agreed to indefinitely postpone the much-maligned legislation. It also waited until last February to strike back at the democrats by portraying them as either “stooges and lackeys” of the Unites States or sympathizers of the pro-independence movement of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian.

This time around, however, the Beijing leadership’s reaction was swift and uncompromising. Both the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and cadres at the Central Government Liaison Office (CGLO) in Hong Kong have reiterated during the week of June 27 that there is no question of overturning the decision of the National People’s Congress (NPC) last April concerning the pace of democracy in Hong Kong. China’s legislature then ruled that there would be no universal-suffrage polls for picking the chief executive in 2007; moreover, only 30 or half of the seats of the Legislative Council (LegCo) would be returned by general elections, while the other half would be nominated by “functionary constituencies” — chambers of commerce and professional bodies that tend to select pro-establishment figures to represent them in the parliamentary body. Moreover, CGLO leaders including its Director, arch-conservative Gao Siren, have deplored as “inappropriate” and “adversarial” slogans used by demonstrators last Thursday such as “Put an end to one-party dictatorship” and “Returning power to the people.”

Chinese sources in Beijing said the larger-than-expected turnout on July 1 had exacerbated the leadership’s fear of an inchoate “Hong Kong independence” movement, a reference to the 6.8 million SAR residents forging their own sense of identity and seeking a political system that is beyond Beijing’s control. As City University of Hong Kong politics professor Anthony Cheung pointed out after the rally: “There is now a sustainable collective voice for better governance in Hong Kong, which symbolizes the search for a pro-active Hong Kong identity within the new national context.” Cheung said this fast-growing “Hongkongness” would raise the possibility that Beijing would “become even more nervous about the rising tide of people’s power and resort to a more hawkish line.”

As was the case with last year’s July 1 protests, the CCP leadership is convinced that “anti-Chinese hostile foreign forces” – usually a reference to the U.S. – are providing at least moral and political support to Hong Kong democrats. This is despite the fact that Washington has actually toned down its criticism of Beijing’s Hong Kong policy the past few months. In reaction to the massive demonstration last week, the State Department spokesman merely said that “it is our longstanding policy to support Hong Kong’s move toward electoral reform and universal suffrage, as provided for in the Basic Law,” the SAR’s mini-constitution.

“The Beijing leadership believes in the conspiracy theory that the U.S. is using Hong Kong – and SAR residents’ demand for Western-style democracy – as part of its global containment policy against China,” said a Beijing source close to Beijing’s Hong Kong policy-making apparatus. The source added that cadres involved in Hong Kong policy have also fingered other “anti-China forces” ranging from the British government to the Vatican. Beijing is still livid about the fact that several relatively senior members of the Hong Kong Xinhua News Agency, the forerunner of CGLO, had provided information to British intelligence from the mid-1990s to last year. And Hong Kong’s activist Catholic Bishop, Joseph Zen, has played a high-profile role in urging residents to take part in peaceful protests to clamor for their legitimate rights.

Much of the next step that Beijing will take in Hong Kong depends on the decisions of the Coordinating Leading Group on Hong Kong Affairs (CLGHKA), which was set up after the July 1 demonstrations last year. And it is the head of the CLGHKA, Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, who masterminded the series of tough tactics leading up to the NPC pronouncement last April that ruled out general elections in the SAR.

Zeng, a close adviser to ex-president Jiang Zemin and a master tactician, has in the past month or so also come up with a “smile offensive” to persuade Hong Kong citizens to accept Beijing’s no-democracy ruling. This united-front strategy includes wooing so-called moderate democrats who think that the fight for democracy should be accomplished with minimal damage to mainland-Hong Kong relations. Zeng has indicated in internal meetings that “moderate and reasonable” SAR democrats should be reissued travel documents to enable them to visit the mainland and even meet with Beijing officials. While touring Africa late last month, Zeng told Hong Kong reporters that “the party central authorities will have a dialogue and communication with different Hong Kong sectors, including the democrats.” Zeng said since there had never been a conflict between Beijing and the SAR democrats, “the question of a reconciliation [between the two] does not arise.

Analysts said Zeng wants to kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, the CLGHKA hopes that Beijing’s apparently conciliatory approach will help persuade more Hong Kong residents that the central leadership is not that authoritarian after all. More importantly, Zeng’s make-nice initiative may have the classic united-front result of “isolating the small minority of enemy elements while uniting the majority.” Obviously, only so-called rational democrats, who subscribe to ex-president Jiang’s dictum that “well water [from the SAR] must not infringe upon river water [of the mainland]” could aspire to benefit from Zeng’s united-front largesse. For example, members of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic, Democratic Movement in China – which has organized the June 4 vigil every year since 1989 – will still be barred from obtaining travel documents to go to China.

Already, Zeng’s tactics seem to have succeeded in driving a wedge between the radical and moderate camps of the SAR’s still-fragile pan-democratic alliance. For example, Szeto Wah, Chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, has criticized Lau Chin-shek, a veteran labor organizer and former Hong Kong Democratic Party (HKDP) stalwart, for succumbing to Beijing’s united front tactics. Lau had advocated that the pan-democratic alliance “take a step backwards” – meaning making a concession over non-core issues – in order to open up new avenues of dialogue with the CCP leadership. Even former HKDP chairman Martin Lee has been accused by some radicals of “going soft on China.” Lee had indicated on July 1 that he himself would not chant the slogan “return power to the people” so as not to antagonize Beijing unnecessarily.

What if, buoyed by yet another surge of people power, the democrats were to gain 30 or more positions in the 60-seat LegCo during pivotal elections in September? Beijing insiders say the CLGHKA is prepared for the worst. While the LegCo has comparatively small powers, it could still paralyze the administration of the Beijing-appointed Tung by vetoing the budget and other important bills. And should the LegCo turn into a “center of subversion” against Beijing, the NPC is prepared to perform yet another “interpretation” of the Basic Law so as to marginalize LegCo and play up the “executive-led nature” of the SAR administration. Already several senior Beijing legal experts have claimed that the “fundamental spirit” of the Basic Law prescribes that the chief executive should have powers to “override both the legislature and the judiciary.”

Observers unfamiliar with Beijing’s Hong Kong policies may pose a series of questions about this relentlessly hard-line turn in the CCP leadership’s policy toward China’s most capitalistic and vibrant city. For example, what of the so-called “demonstration effect” on Taiwan, which has also been promised the “one country, two systems” treatment. The answer is probably that Beijing is no longer banking on a soft sell to win over the “renegade province.” The latest steps that the CCP is contemplating toward the pro-independence administration of President Chen have consisted of military intimidation as well as boosting the island’s economic dependence on the mainland. For example, the People’s Liberation Army is putting the finishing touches on a series of war games along the coast to ensure the Chinese armed forces’ air and naval domination of the Taiwan Strait.

And what of the rivalry between the “Hu-Wen leadership” – a reference to the CCP faction led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao – and the still-powerful Shanghai Clique headed by ex-president Jiang and Vice-President Zeng? Diplomatic analysts in Beijing said on issues of national sovereignty such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet, there is quite a unanimity of views within the CCP’s top echelons on the need for tough tactics. The analysts said in theory, Hu and Wen could attack Zeng for the CLGHKA’s apparent failure to defuse the Hong Kong public’s antagonism toward the central authorities. However, the crafty Zeng has sought the imprimatur of either Hu or, more often, Jiang, before making major decisions on Hong Kong. And even assuming that Hu wanted to moderate Beijing’s harsh SAR policy, there is little possibility of this happening before Jiang steps down from his last remaining post of Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission in late 2007.