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New challenges in the election season
Eric Teo
9/4/2004

Although the Chinese leadership faces no electoral contenders, Beijing will soon have to deal with two uncertain but crucial elections in the next four months, the consequences of which could have serious implications for China's internal political cohesiveness as well as regional stability. In September, Hong Kongers will elect their Legislative Council (Legco), of which 30 seats are set aside for election through universal suffrage and the other 30 through "functional representation." And in December, Taiwanese go to the polls to choose their next Legislative Yuan (Taiwan's legislature), nine months after they had renewed the mandate of President Chen Shui-Bian for a second term in March.

These two elections could well have a monumental impact on China, as the latest indications do not augur well for Beijing in either of these contests. The elections are sure to test China's fourth-generation leadership, especially in the event that pro-Beijing candidates do not fair well, and force Beijing to grapple with issues of Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity in an increasingly unsettled time for the Chinese economy and society. At a time when the Chinese usher in the Year of the Rooster, an uncertain sign by all accounts according to Chinese astrology, gauging Beijing's reaction to the elections in the early months of 2005 will be critical.

The Hong Kong Dilemma

Massive protests for the second consecutive year on July 1 do not bode well for Beijing's position and standing in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong. By some estimates, more than half of a million Hong Kongers filled the streets this year (as in 2003), despite pleas from the authorities not to turn the anniversary of the 1997 handover into an annual day of popular protests against the central government in Beijing. This year's "better than expected" protest turnout can be attributed to two principal issues. Firstly, Hong Kongers seem intent in booting out Beijing's prime representative in Hong Kong, Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa. Tung clearly lost Hong Kongers popular mandate and now commands an extremely low level of confidence within the SAR. Recent ministerial resignations and harsh criticisms from Tung's former deputy, the ever-popular Anson Chan, highlight this political dilemma. It remains to be seen how and when Beijing will "sacrifice" Tung in order to gain some measure of social peace and political acceptance in Hong Kong.

Secondly, China probably moved too decisively and harshly in its April 6 "interpretation" of Hong Kong's Basic Law. The National People's Congress in Beijing (NPC) stated that henceforth it would be the only body that could decide on Hong Kong's political future and legal perimeters. Hong Kongers were very disappointed with the ruling, and perceived it as a move by Beijing to impose its views and system on the SAR.

Given these two developments, it is quite possible to envisage a scenario in which Hong Kong voters would give a boost to opposition democrats at the Legco polls. In fact, democrats could sweep a majority of the thirty so-called "geographical seats," though pro-Beijing elements will probably still capture most of the thirty "functional seats" (given the influence of business and other pro-government elements there). So far, Beijing's reconciliatory moves of public discussions and explanations do not seem to have borne fruits in Hong Kong, as the massive "democratic show of force" on July 1 amply demonstrated. It remains to be seen if Vice-President Zeng Qinghong's last-ditched attempt in late August to convince Hong Kongers of the benefits of cooperating with the central government can stem the anti-Beijing tide.

The Taiwan Quagmire

The Taiwan political quagmire is of a different nature, though no less dark in it forecast for Beijing. The Chinese leadership is in fact preparing for the eventuality that President Chen Shui-bian's "green supporters" (many of whom strongly advocate independence from the Mainland) will sweep the Legislative Yuan at the December polls. Such an eventuality would not only bolster pro-independence sentiments in Taiwan, but might also embolden "pro-independentists" to press for more decisive moves toward an indefinite split from the China.

Chen's "election by a whisker" last March was an ominous sign that the "green independence tide" could ultimately shift the legislature from its current "pan-blue" KMT-PFP majority towards the DPP-TSU alliance, hence seriously endangering Beijing's incessant appeals to respect the "one China" policy. This shift appears inevitable today, as the former-ruling KMT party weakens further, amidst internal squabbles and the glaring failure of its own leadership to contend with critical yet controversial internal party renewal and rejuvenation. The KMT-PFP opposition lack credible leaders in Lien Chan and James Soong, while a strengthened Chen Shui-bian/Lee Teng-hui tandem head the recently victorious DPP-TSU alliance. This internal Taiwanese political wrangling comes at a time when the controversy of Chen's ultra-thin victory over Lien in the last presidential elections appears to be dissipating; Taiwanese public opinion seems to be coming to terms with Chen's second mandate while Lien, Soong and their parties slip in popularity ratings across the country.

China appears to be at a total loss in contending with these internal politics, nor has it determined how best to win the hearts and minds of an increasingly nationally-oriented 23 million Taiwanese. Threats from Chinese leaders have not been helpful in binding the Taiwanese any closer to the Mainland, just as Beijing begins to realize the true limits of its economic policy of enticement and "enmeshment" between Taiwan and the Mainland.

China has put pressure on Taiwan's principal ally, the United States, not to sell arms or bolster nationalistic sentiments on the island. But Beijing also realizes the clear limits of Washington's commitment to the "one China" policy; a commitment which was tested during "strategic talks" between the Chinese leadership and Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Council Advisor Condoleezza Rice on separate occasions this year in Beijing. The current Dongshan war drill by Beijing, as well as the Hankuang military games by Taiwan, attests to the increasingly tense situation across the Straits. Any U.S. military package to Taipei could spark renewed nervousness in China, as Mainland strategists prepare for air attacks and sea-borne landings against Taiwan.

Internal Consolidation or Power Struggle?

Beijing's leaders thus face the prospect of two electoral "failures" by the end of this year. Furthermore, Beijing is closely following the American presidential elections in November, which is sure to have a direct impact on Sino-American relations and the Taiwan issue, especially if George W. Bush is re-elected for a second term.

Thus, early 2005 will be crucial for Chinese leaders, as they will be forced to make critical decisions on their dealings with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Washington. The "soft approach" has so far seemed to have faltered, as the latest indicators show that Hong Kongers and Taiwanese appear not to have been drawn any closer to Beijing; perhaps China's policies of economic enticement and integration need to be reviewed. It therefore remains to be seen how seriously Chinese leaders will take these two possible "electoral slaps in their face" when plotting their next course of action. Nevertheless, three factors need to be borne in mind in early 2005.

Firstly, peace and security in East Asia could in fact lie squarely in Chinese leaders' hands, as they grapple with China's reaction to Hong Kong, Taipei and Washington. Hopefully, they will react with a cool head to Beijing's pending "electoral set-backs," especially now, when nationalism is mounting in the country. But it would also be prudent for the United States and Europe not to fan the flames of protests and defiance too strongly in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The peoples of Hong Kong and Taiwan should make their democratic choice with cool heads as well, without unnecessarily provoking the Mainland into outrage and pushing their respective situations into conflict.

Moreover, there remains the danger of a power struggle within the top Chinese leadership should things go terribly wrong in both the Hong Kong and Taiwanese elections. The fourth generation could be in for a difficult test of its leadership cohesiveness. Former President Jiang Zemin could use this occasion to test the political mettle of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao over China's economy and security (where some differences exist), and may even be tempted to reassert some political pre-eminence in order to "balance" their power. In a way, early 2005 could be the Hu-Wen team's real baptism by fire vis--vis the "Jiang clique" (who has been relegated to playing second fiddle since the SARS epidemic last spring) especially with regard to Vice-President Zeng, who also handles the crucial Hong Kong issue. In any event, the possibility of such an internal power struggle within the present fourth generation of leaders cannot be discounted.

In fact, all of the Asia-Pacific is poised for challenging times in early 2005. The reaction of the Chinese leadership could determine whether the Year of the Rooster will bring stability and prosperity or chaos and political struggle; 2005 could indeed be a year of dangers for China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the region. Early 2005 may therefore link, for the first time since the November 2002 Party leadership transition, internal power consolidation or struggle (within) with regional and international challenges (without) thus constituting China's first critical political test for stability and its credibility on the world stage.

Dr Eric Teo Chu Cheow, a business consultant and strategist, is Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs (SIIA).

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

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