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Beijing's hand in Hong Kong politics
Willy Lam
6/14/2004

Let a hundred fig-leaves wilt! Since Hong Kong's return to the motherland's embrace in 1997, Beijing has cited a thousand and one pieces of evidence to buttress claims that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has adopted a hands-off policy toward the special administrative region (SAR), which supposedly enjoys a high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" model. From January 2004 onwards, however, it has become clear the CCP's all-too-visible hand is behind tough tactics to stifle democratic development in the SAR, and to intimidate liberal politicians and journalists. Anger against Beijing's efforts to squash the seeds of reform in the SAR was evident among the more than 80,000 Hong Kong residents who showed up last week to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 suppression of the pro-democracy student movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The basic factor behind the radicalization of Beijing's Hong Kong policy is the party leadership's perception that pro-democratic elements in the SAR, backed by "hostile foreign forces," are out to usurp power from loyal, Beijing-appointed officials in the territory. Senior cadres including Jiang Zemin, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, have equated the crusade by Hong Kong liberals to seek "one person one vote" with Taiwan's pro-independence gambit. Beijing is convinced that pro-democratic elements are scheming to seize control of both the SAR government and the Legislative Council (LegCo). It appears, however, that SAR residents only want democracy, not independence, as former chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party (HKDP) Martin Lee reiterated. But for Beijing, a democrats-dominated SAR administration that refuses to toe the CCP line is tantamount to an independent Hong Kong.

Beijing's fear of losing control came to a head after some 600,000 SAR residents hit the streets last July 1 to protest against the misrule of CCP-appointed Chief Executive (CE) Tung Chee-hwa. Protesters were especially opposed to the latter's bid to push through the hated national security bill called for under Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law (HKBL). Shocked by this show of Hong Kong-style people power, Tung – and the CCP leadership – was forced to postpone the enactment of Article 23 legislation indefinitely. Apparently capitalizing on the people's strong desire to pick Tung's successor through universal-suffrage elections, pro-democratic parties such as the HKDP and the Frontier won a landslide victory in the November District Board polls on the platform of faster political reforms. Regarding the July 1 demonstrations, however, even President Hu Jintao, a supposedly moderate cadre, noted while meeting Tung in the Chinese capital not long after the protests that Beijing must raise its guard against "anti-China forces" stirring up trouble in the SAR.

It was, however, mainly at the urging of ex-president Jiang that Beijing plotted a counter-attack. After all, Jiang, who appointed Tung as CE in both 1997 and 2002, was anxious to counter criticism within the CCP that he was responsible for "losing Hong Kong." Immediately after the July 1, 2003 protests, Jiang recommended that his closest adviser, Vice-President and Politburo member Zeng Qinghong, be made Head of the newly created Coordinating Leading Group on Hong Kong Affairs (CLGHKA). The task of rooting out anti-Beijing elements in the SAR would fall on the shoulders of Zeng, whose credentials included helping Jiang get rid of a series of powerful enemies in the party.

First came the great patriotism debate earlier this year, when senior cadres resurrected late patriarch Deng Xiaoping's instructions that only "patriots" – meaning politicians or businessmen subservient to Beijing – could become part of the SAR's ruling elite. Never mind that this "patriotic" requirement has never been stated in the HKBL – the SAR's mini-constitution. During the "promote patriotism" campaign, Beijing cadres and their supporters in the SAR branded the HKDP's Lee as an "American stooge" and the Frontier's Emily Lau as a "supporter of Taiwan independence."

A product of compromise between the then British colonial powers and Beijing, the HKBL contains the clause that the eventual goal of political development in Hong Kong is the popular election of the CE and the legislature. An annex of the HKBL points to the possibility of doing away with the current system of "indirect election" of the CE – via an 800-member "electoral college" consisting of mostly pro-Beijing elements – as early as 2007. The annex indicates that changes in the CE's electoral mechanism can be made with the endorsement of two-thirds of LegCo members, as well as the approval of the CE and the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC), China's parliament. Similar provisions for revising the electoral methods for picking LegCo members in 2008 are spelled out in another annex.

In April of this year, however, the NPCSC unilaterally "interpreted" the HKBL, resulting in the erection of numerous hurdles to changing the electoral procedures for both CE and the LegCo. For example, the CE must now file a report to the NPCSC explaining in detail why a change of election methods is necessary, and the parliamentary body will make a ruling on the principles underpinning the revision. Throughout this exercise, Beijing's views – not those of the Hong Kong people – will be final. At a hastily called NPCSC meeting on April 26, the legislative body flatly pronounced that there would be no universal suffrage polls in Hong Kong for 2007. Nor will the LegCo installed in 2008 be the product of one person, one vote. It will have the same 50:50 proportion of generally elected legislators on the one hand, and "functional constituencies" (FC) – mostly pro-Beijing business and professional organizations – on the other.

According to the Hong Kong Bar Association, the NPCSC – and the CCP leadership – has violated the legal framework underpinning "one country, two systems" by arbitrarily revising the HKBL without even the semblance of consulting Hong Kong. The governments of the U.S., Britain, and Canada also expressed grave reservations over this development. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific Affairs James Kelly pointed out in early June that "Beijing's April 26 decision reflects a lack of understanding about the sophistication and patriotism of the Hong Kong electorate." Kelly raised fears that "the ‘one country, two systems' framework may be being undermined."

Yet even more overt transgressions of the "high degree of autonomy" pledge are in the works as Zeng's CLGHKA concentrates on handicapping the September LegCo elections in favor of the "patriots." Zeng's group, as well as the Central Government Liaison Office (CGLO) – Beijing's official mission in the SAR – is pulling out the stops to prevent the democrats from gaining control of LegCo. In September, 30 legislators will be voted into office via universal suffrage "geographical constituencies," while another 30 will be returned from functional constituencies (FC). The CLGHKA is not too worried about the FCs, which are outfits such as chambers of commerce that usually pick politically correct candidates; democrats can traditionally garner only four or five FC seats, usually from groups such as lawyers and teachers. However, Beijing is anxious that the democrats not be able to grab 25 or more of the 30 Legco seats from geographical constituencies.

Zeng indicated in a recent CLGHKA meeting that the democrats wanted to "seize control of Hong Kong" and "shake off the leadership of Beijing" through their crusade for universal suffrage. A big LegCo win by the democrats would mean not only the paralysis of the Tung administration, but would result in the democrats feeling emboldened enough to clamor even more vociferously for democratic rights for the SAR.

According to Hong Kong Political Science professor Kuan Hsin-chi, Beijing is "using whatever means it can to influence the outcome of the [September] elections." Allen Lee, a media personality and former legislator, agreed that not since the 1970s has Beijing been so nervous about political developments in Hong Kong. Lee should know. Last month he was allegedly intimidated by his mainland-Chinese friends into giving up his high-profile job as host of the "Storm in a Teacup" talk-show program on Commercial Radio. Lee's predecessor on the show, Albert Cheng, as well as another Commercial Radio broadcaster, Raymond Wong, had also quit because of alleged intimidation. All three have been savaged in the SAR's pro-Chinese media for using their talk-show platform to blast Beijing and to render help to the democrats.

In past elections, CGLO and its predecessor, the Xinhua News Agency Hong Kong Office, had used numerous tactics to boost the chances of pro-Beijing candidates such as those fielded by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB). For example, employees of large Chinese companies such as the Bank of China and China Resources were reportedly urged to cast their ballots for pro-Beijing candidates. This year, however, Beijing is waging an even more elaborate, all-guns-blazing campaign to "get out the patriotic vote."

A Chinese source close to Beijing's Hong Kong policy-making teams said a few thousand cadres and agents working for departments including the CLGHKA, the cabinet-level Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), the Foreign Ministry, the Ministries of Public Security and State Security, the United Front Departments of various levels and even military intelligence units have been sent to Hong Kong, Shenzhen and neighboring cities to provide support to patriotic, pro-Beijing LegCo candidates.

While visiting the SAR, these officials – particularly those who have worked in Guangdong Province – would appeal to friends, business clients and fellow clansmen to vote for LegCo candidates "who love the motherland and who love Hong Kong." A few cadres even suggested that "patriotic" voters use a 3G mobile phone to take a picture of the completed ballot paper to show they had done the right thing. SAR businessmen and professionals who work in or who frequently visit Guangdong have often been asked to "encourage" their Hong Kong-based relatives, friends and staff to support the DAB.

The Chinese source said central and Guangdong authorities had even dispatched teams of "dirty tricks" specialists to Hong Kong to unearth whatever skeletons there might be in the closets of a number of pro-democracy LegCo candidates. "They will try to dig out dirt in areas including extra-marital affairs, misuse of public funds, and conflicts of interest," said the source.

Also affecting the dynamics of SAR politics is the law of bureaucratic self-justification. Back in 1997, CCP leaders considered abolishing or radically downsizing either the HKMAO or the CGLO (then known as Xinhua). In the wake of the July 1, 2003 demonstrations, however, the staff of the CGLO and every Hong Kong-related department in the mainland has been substantially increased. These thousands upon thousands of cadre-bureaucrats can only justify their jobs by telling the Politburo of the palpable danger that the SAR might become a "beachhead" for Washington's "anti-China containment policy." Likewise, pro-Chinese politicians and tycoons based in the SAR want to boost their influence by feeding conspiracy theories to the CCP leadership. For instance, they like to tell senior cadres that thanks to the "massive aid" the democrats have received from "hostile foreign forces," the latter might grab as many as 35 out of the 60 LegCo seats.


In an article published this week in an international magazine, former Chief Secretary Anson Chan decried the no-holds-barred tactics Beijing had used to influence Hong Kong politics. Chan, who had been marginalized by the central authorities because of her alleged links with the former British administration, particularly deplored "public rhetoric and posturing [by Chinese cadres] reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution," which, she said, "have left Hong Kong people puzzled, hurt and frustrated." Chan, consistently voted SAR's most popular politician, urged the CCP leadership to trust the people of Hong Kong. "We have no wish to push for independence or to destabilize the mainland," she wrote. The thousands of opportunistic SAR politicians and mainland cadres whose career advancement is built upon one conspiracy theory after another, however, will make sure that CCP leaders won't heed Chan's pleadings.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia's best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN's Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from China Brief, Jamestown Foundation.

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