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Where Hong Kong went wrong
Paul Lin
7/9/2003



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Six years after its handover to China, Hong Kong has seen an economic slump and political decline, causing public anger that led to a mass demonstration on July 1, in which between 500,000 and 1 million people participated. Why is the territory's government so at a loss over the economy? Why did it want to pass the Article 23 legislation in such a short period, knowing fully and yet refusing to accept the fact that the public have many objections to it? There is only one answer: Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's regime is an alien regime. China, not Hong Kong, is its top priority.

In 1996, before taking over Hong Kong, China screened some hot candidates for the chief executive's post. Only two were left after the screening.

Tung, who was then a member of Hong Kong's Executive Council, was favored by Lu Ping, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China's State Council.

But Zhou Nan, then director of the Xinhua News Agency's Hong Kong office, favored chief justice Yang Ti-liang.

Because former Xinhua chief Xu Jiatun helped Tung rescue his company, which was on the brink of bankruptcy, Tung repaid Xu's kindness by giving his girlfriend a highly paid sinecure in his company, which included housing.

In the end, however, former president Jiang Zemin appointed Tung to the job. Why? There were many reasons, but an important one was that Tung was of Zhejiang ancestry and born in Shanghai. Only when he was 10 did he move to Hong Kong. He could be listed as a member of the "Shanghai gang." After finishing high school in Hong Kong, Tung went to college in the UK, and then lived in the US for almost 10 years. He did not return to Hong Kong until 1969. He therefore is not deeply rooted in Hong Kong and does not belong to a local faction. The name of his family business, Orient Overseas (International) Ltd, has an overtone of roving overseas and not viewing Hong Kong as its roots.

Yang was also born in Shanghai, but he is Cantonese. Besides, he returned to Hong Kong much earlier. Having served as a judge in Hong Kong over a long period, Yang understands the concept of judicial independence. On top of this, the Chinese leadership has always believed that the Cantonese have a serious problem of "regionalism" and may be difficult to control.

When building his leadership team, Tung appointed the Chinese Communist Party's underground members in Hong Kong to important posts. For example, Elsie Leung (梁愛詩), who has a leftist background, was appointed to the important position of secretary for justice, so as to protect pro-communist allies. That was why Sally Aw Sian (胡仙), a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and chairwoman of the Singtao group, was spared punishment in a fraud scandal.

In Tung's first term, Leung Chun-ying was appointed convener of the Executive Council. He is still a council member in Tung's second term. Quite a few bad ideas came from him.

Chan Kin-ping, the chief executive's assistant, was formerly a Wen Wei Po reporter stationed in Beijing. He graduated from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. Through him, Beijing can give orders to Tung without leaving a trace.

Only two Hong Kong political party heads have been invited to sit on the Executive Council. One of them is Jasper Tsang, chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. After the July 1 demonstration, Tsang publicly stated that those who had participated in the protest had been misled.

The identities of underground CCP members have been kept secret, but they were still leaked through different channels. No matter what countenance they take on in Hong Kong, they must work for Beijing.

As expected, since taking up the chief executive's job Tung tried to second-guess and take his cues from Beijing's intentions about everything, and for this reason he won Beijing's favor. Regarding Taiwan-Hong Kong relations, for example, Tung appointed Ip Kwok-wah as a special advisor. Ip was also an underground CCP member, but he was relatively open-minded.

But Tung created tensions in Hong Kong-Taiwan relations in order to show that he was enthusiastic about the great enterprise of China's unification and hostile to Taiwanese independence. Cheng An-kuo, then Taiwan's representative in Hong Kong, was forced to leave after he came under attack from pro-communist people for his explanation of the "state-to-state" dictum.

Cheng's successor, Chang Liang-jen, and Ping Lu, director of the Kwang Hwa Information and Culture Center, had to wait for long periods before they could take office.

Learning from the CCP's attitude toward dissidents, Tung has refused to deal with or communicate with democrats. This is something extremely rare in Hong Kong's pluralistic society.

One of the reasons behind Hong Kong's sluggish economy is the Hong Kong dollar being pegged to the US dollar, which has kept the former's value too high. However, the exchange rate cannot be unpegged or adjusted because of Beijing's fears about Hong Kong's stability and the effect on the Chinese yuan.

It is exactly Tung's background and the priority he has given to China's interests that account for the alien characteristic of his regime. The situation is similar to the 228 Incident in Taiwan following the country's "retrocession" to Chinese rule -- the only difference being that Tung dares not resort to oppression for the time being because Hong Kong is an international city that attracts global attention.

But given the Article 23 legislation and the recent police threats against residents preparing to further protest the legislation, who can guarantee that a case of bloody suppression like the 228 Incident won't happen in Hong Kong?

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.


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