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Tung Chee-hwa is playing for time
Paul Lin

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On Sept. 5, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa suddenly announced his decision to withdraw the national security bill based on Article 23 of the Basic Law. Just the day before Security Secretary Ambrose Lee had just announced that a consultation paper on the issue would be issued next month, but in the blink of an eye, Tung rejected the whole matter. The Hong Kong Economic Journal described the incident as a slap in the face to Lee.

According to Tung, there were two main reasons for withdrawing the bill -- the continued concerns of Hong Kong residents about the bill and the need to focus on improving the economy. Both reasons are far-fetched. The residents have always had concerns regarding the bill and they have always thought that the most important issue was to revive the territory's economy.

But the government and local communists feel that if the central government in Beijing isn't to be toppled by "anti-Chinese forces," the bill must be passed. While celebrating the withdrawal of the bill, people throughout the territory are also showing new concerns that its withdrawal was simply a political expedient. These concerns reflect the fact that people close to China have changed their tune and welcomed the decision and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan -- the state councillor in charge of Hong Kong mat-ters -- declared that he respects it.

The remarks by Tsang Yok Sing chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, a pro-Beijing organization, offered an interpretation of the bill's withdrawal. Tsang, who arrived in Beijing on the day the bill was withdrawn, told journalists there that Tung's decision did not mean it had surrendered to public opinion, but that the decision was based on real concerns that it would be difficult to get the bill passed by the Legislative Council (Legco) before its current session expires next July.

Tung did not surrender to public opinion, nor was the decision a result of his natural goodness. This is proven by the fact that on July 5, four days after the great anti-Article 23 demonstration, he was still insisting that the bill should be passed as planned. However, protests from James Tien, chairman of Hong Kong's Liberal Party, forced a postponement.

This is where we run into the "real concerns" that Tsang was talking about -- Hong Kong is holding district board member elections in December and next year there will be elections for Legco members. If legislation is still being discussed at that time, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, whose task it is to make sure Tung remains chief executive, and other political parties close to Beijing, will lose a lot of votes.

This is also the reason why the Tung government had made July the deadline for passing the security legislation. When the July deadline expired, Hong Kong's communists said that legislation should not be passed until the next legislative session, thus clearly exposing their intent to avoid having the bill interfere with the elections. Tung decided to withdraw the bill because he, as always, accepted the suggestions of the local communists.

In the eyes of Beijing, the massive July 1 demonstration was more a result of dissatisfaction with Hong Kong's economic situation, and that is why it now is going out of its way to prop up the territory's economy.

In addition to establishing closer trade ties, Beijing is allowing residents of nine Chinese cities to travel freely to Hong Kong. This measure seems aimed at speeding up the sinicization of Hong Kong by eliminating the political, legal and cultural differentiation between the territory and the mainland. It has, however, yielded quick results as it has stimulated Hong Kong's tourism and retail industries, and even brought some life to the real estate market.

Tung will probably wait until the economy picks up again before making another attempt at getting the security legislation passed. This is also why Legco member and lawyer Audrey Yu was worried that the bill will be reintroduced in a harsher form than the current version.

Last year, the bad economy was one of the reasons why Tung thought conditions were advantageous for introducing Article 23 legislation. He thought that if people were preoccupied with the economy, the bill could be slipped through. Now he will wait until the economy has taken a turn for the better. This U-turn, however, also reveals Tung's IQ.

As Tung was saying that all forces should be concentrated on improving the economy, China's mouthpieces in Hong Kong published half-page articles calling Legco member and democracy activist Emily Lau the "Taiwan independence Legco member" because of her visit to Taipei for a symposium on Hong Kong. They demanded every Legco member to come clean on the issue of Taiwan's independence. They did not shrink from dividing Hong Kong in an attempt at regaining lost political ground.

After Lee said he didn't think Lau's statements constituted an attempt at using armed force to split the nation, Hong Kong's communists tried to make Lau a lame duck politically and they even reported her to the police. This was, without a doubt, yet another slap in Lee's face.

With such a government ruling Hong Kong, what hope can there be?

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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