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Politics

Hong Kong: A Very Instructive Cock-Up

10 July 2003

Hong Kong: A Very Instructive Cock-Up

By Gwynne Dyer

Historians generally divide into two schools: the paranoids, who believe that there is a secret plot behind everything that happens, and the realists, who think that most large events are the result of a cock-up somewhere. The remarkable events in Hong Kong over the past two weeks are a powerful argument for the Cock-Up Theory of History. They are also very encouraging.

It is not clear why Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Tung Chee-wha, chose this July to enact a draconian new law on sedition. The Basic Law that has served as a kind of constitution since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 requires the passage of a security law covering issues like subversion and spying eventually, but under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ deal that guaranteed civil rights and limited democracy in the former British colony, the Communist authorities in Beijing left both the details and the timing of those laws to local lawmakers.

Maybe some people in Beijing suggested that Tung should get a move on with an anti-subversion law, but there is no evidence that the orders came from the top, or that Beijing wrote the harsh clauses that horrified most people in Hong Kong. It’s more likely to be the old story of the over-zealous subordinate trying too hard to please the master, and making a major mess in the process. Anyway, Tung brought in the law, and the people of Hong Kong basically threw it out.

Hong Kongers have traditionally been seen as people who don’t care about politics so long as they can go on making money, but on the 1st of July, in the stifling heat of midsummer, half a million of them came out on the streets in a good-humoured but massive demonstration against the new law. The sheer number of people astonished everybody, including the organisers. It was the biggest demo anywhere in China since the Communist regime nearly lost power during the pro-democracy demonstrations on Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989, and it changed everything.

Tung scrambled to save his law, offering to delete clauses that allowed the police to make searches and seizures without a warrant during “urgent security investigations” and gave the Hong Kong government the right to ban local groups with links to organisations that are banned in mainland China. The new crime of ‘theft of State secrets’ would remain, but Hong Kong journalists could plead the defence of ‘public interest (as their mainland colleagues cannot).

The opposition leaders were not impressed by the token concessions that Tung offered, but he insisted that his anti-subversion bill would still go before the Legislative Council on Wednesday the 9th. So the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong promised more and bigger demonstrations — and meanwhile, up in Beijing, however, surprise and confusion was rapidly turning to worry.

What if the demos get out of hand in Hong Kong, which still earns much of China’s foreign-exchange? What if they spread to China itself, where popular grievances are far bigger and the government has even less legitimacy in the public’s eyes? What has that fool Tung set loose? Soon Hong Kong businessman James Tien, an ally of Tung’s, was flying back from a visit to Beijing with some important news.

Two senior Chinese officials had told him, Tien said, that Hong Kong was free to decide both the timing and the content of the security legislation on its own. In these circumstances his Liberal Party could not support Tung’s law now. Without the votes of the Liberals (not elected politicians, but a group chosen by the business community who normally put ‘stability’ and good relations with Beijing first), Tung had no chance of getting his law through the Legislative Council, so late last Sunday he deferred it indefinitely.

Beijing will probably replace the badly damaged Tung in a few months’ time and no new attack on civil rights in Hong Kong is likely to happen soon. Good. But what does Beijing’s placatory response to this crisis tell us about the state of affairs in China itself?

It tells us that the new ‘fourth generation’ of leaders who took over most of the senior positions last November understand what thin ice they are skating on. This is good news, as it is in nobody’s interest that they fall in. What China and the rest of the world needs is not another Tienanmen Square, but a recognition by the ‘Communist’ leadership that the country must have gradual democratisation if it is not to have a political explosion whenever a serious economic downturn comes along.

China has not been Communist economically for many years: it already has lower taxes, less social welfare, and a bigger proportion of the economy in private hands than many European countries. In terms of the gap between rich and poor, it is less egalitarian than the United States, probably even less than Russia. Yet it has no free press, no independent democratic institutions, nothing that could act as a safety valve and an early warning system for the ‘Communists’ who still rule it with an iron hand.

President Hu Jintao and the men around him, having just attained supreme power, are not going to hand it over any time soon, but their response to the recent events in Hong Kong shows that they understand enough not to pour fuel on the flames. They will back up, compromise, make deals, anything that keeps the show on the road a little longer — and maybe that will win enough time for real political changes to start happening.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Tung…cannot”; and “China…hand”)

NOTE: The British phrase ‘cock-up’, used twice in the first paragraph, may not mean anything to some other audiences. Bolder papers may wish to substitute the phrase ‘screw-up’; more cautious ones will have to make do with ‘blunder’.