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Turning back the clock on SAR rule?
Willy Lam
10/15/2004

The Legislative Council (LegCo) polls in Hong Kong demonstrated that Beijing's carrot-and-stick approach has to a considerable extent been successful in countering the challenge of pro-democracy forces in the special administrative region (SAR). It is expected that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership will continue to use a combination of force, guile and united-front gimmicks to postpone the pace of democracy. While China may in the near future stick to its "smile and make-nice offensive," the leadership is so confident about its prowess that it will likely ask the Tung Chee-hwa administration to re-introduce the hated "Article 23" anti-subversion bill in 2005 or 2006.

It is easy to see why Beijing is happy with the results: the pan-democratic alliance managed to add only three seats, to a total of 25, in the 60-member legislature. In this election, 30 seats in five geographical constituencies were picked via universal suffrage under a proportional representation formula that many say favors the pro-establishment parties. The other 30 slots were returned from largely pro-government and pro-Beijing "functional constituencies," meaning business chambers and professional bodies. The Hong Kong Democratic Party (HKDP), the SAR's major pro-democratic grouping, secured a disappointing nine seats, down from 11 last time. Soon after Beijing's National People's Congress (NPC) pronounced last April that there would be no general elections for the chief executive's post in 2007 and for the legislature one year later Beijing had feared that the democrats might score a landslide victory during Sunday's polls.

Equally importantly, the pro-China party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) garnered 12 LegCo seats up from nine from the geographic and functional constituencies, making it the largest party in the legislature. Thus, the CCP's long-standing goal of nurturing a powerful, quasi-subsidiary political grouping in the SAR has been realized. Because of the DAB's image as Beijing's "yesmen," there were fears earlier that it would suffer a Waterloo at the polls. However, as former DAB chairman Jasper Tsang said the day after the elections, "Our party has gained support among newly registered voters." Tsang denied widespread reports that DAB candidates had relied on "iron ballots" delivered by units including pro-Beijing trade unions and major Chinese corporations based in the SAR.

Beijing has so far refrained from detailed comments on the polls. The Vice-Head of the ministerial-level Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), Chen Zuo'er, said on Monday the polls had demonstrated the success of the principles of "one country, two systems" and "Hong Kong people running Hong Kong." Professor Zhang Tongxin, a senior Hong Kong expert at the People's University in Beijing, said the results of the polls would mean "an increase in the party central authorities' confidence" in ensuring the viability of the "one country, two systems" model. Zhang told the Hong Kong media that SAR residents now realized that democracy could only be attained in a "gradualist and incremental" manner.

It is understood that the CCP's Coordinating Leading Group on Hong Kong Affairs (CLGHKA), China's top policy-making organ on Hong Kong, met one day after the polls to map out future strategies toward the SAR. A source close to the Hong Kong-policy establishment in Beijing said the CLGHKA, led by Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, was satisfied that a judicious mixture of tough tactics and the artful dispensation of largesse could "tame" the SAR public. "After full elections were ruled out by the NPC [in April], the Hong Kong public expressed their anger by staging a march of nearly 300,000 people on July 1," he said. "However, Beijing has been able to pacify disgruntled elements in the SAR through offering economic benefits as well as by using sagacious united-front tactics to co-opt businessmen and professionals."

Late last month, Beijing agreed to grant duty-free entry to an additional several hundred categories of Hong Kong-manufactured products. This was on top of a series of dispensations such as making it easier for mainland-Chinese tourists especially well-heeled residents along the coast to visit Hong Kong as individual tourists. These measures have contributed to the overall improvement in the economy; the GDP is expected to grow by 7 to 8 percent this year. Moreover, Beijing has made it easier for accountants, lawyers and other professionals to practice in the mainland. And Hong Kong people's realization that the local economy is now largely dependent on the mainland has spawned the "you don't bite the hand that feeds you" psychology, which partially manifested itself at the polls.

For many Hong Kong observers, the efficacy of the so-called "dirty tricks" campaign that Beijing's agents and supporters reportedly used against a number of HKDP LegCo candidates was also demonstrated to the full. One example was sales manager Alex Ho, who was running on the same ticket as veteran HKDP lawmaker Fred Li. Ho was detained last month by police in the neighboring Chinese city of Dongguan for allegedly patronizing a prostitute. A few days before the polls, the Dongguan police released highly graphic photographs that they took while breaking into the hotel room while Ho was supposedly having a tryst with the woman. The photographs made front-page news in SAR papers. "We have lost many votes because of the Ho affair," said Li, who was himself re-elected.

However, the big question on people's minds is: now that the CLGHKA and other top Hong Kong-related organs have gained so much confidence in manipulating events in the SAR, will they try to win back the majority of the SAR populace by at least pledging some small steps in promoting reconciliation with democratic legislators or in speeding up the democratization time-table? After all, during the LegCo contests in the geographical constituency section, 58% of the 1.7 million-odd voters cast their ballots for members of the pan-democratic alliance.

Informed Chinese sources said the only "concession" Beijing might make would be to allow a few "moderate" democrats to be given one-time visas to visit the mainland as tourists. The HKDP's suggestion that Beijing invites all 50 LegCo members for a ceremonial get-together in the capital has been unofficially turned down. The sources said Beijing would definitely not pledge to consider approving one-person one-vote elections for the chief executive in 2012, or for the LegCo in 2013.

In fact, CLGHKA chief Zeng, a Politburo Standing Committee member and confidante of ex-president Jiang Zemin who still has the final say on Hong Kong affairs wants to take further steps to beef up the principle that the SAR government is an executive-led administration. This means that the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive's powers and prerogatives override those of the legislature and the judiciary. Professor Zhang indicated last week that since the SAR did not practice the "Western" concept of the tripartite division of power between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, it did not really matter how many LegCo seats the democrats would occupy. "Hong Kong follows the system of an executive-led administration," Zhang said. "The power and functions of the legislature are limited."

The CLGHKA wants to further consolidate the chief executive's power and to marginalize the LegCo because of the fact that a few of what Beijing calls "wild-mannered rabble-rousers" managed to become lawmakers last Sunday. One is veteran "Marxist" anti-Beijing protestor Leung ("Long Hair") Kwok-hung, who staged his first post-election demonstration on Monday to savage the poorly organized polls. The other is high-profile broadcaster Albert Cheng, also known as "taipan" and "the people's hero." Cheng was forced to quit the media in early summer when a group of Hong Kong triads with alleged mainland links threatened to harm him and his family.

On Monday, the HKMAO's Chen issued an indirect warning to the likes of Leung and Cheng in the LegCo by noting that all lawmakers "must be faithful to their oath of office" as stipulated in the Basic Law, the SAR's constitution. A Hong Kong-based Asian diplomat said it was possible that Beijing would seek another "interpretation" of the Basic Law to make it easier for the SAR and Chinese authorities to disqualify lawmakers who are deemed to be "anti-Beijing" or to have violated the spirit of the Basic Law.

More significantly, the CLGHKA wants to quickly wrap up the enactment of anti-subversion "national security" legislation as spelled out in Article 23 of the Basic Law. Beijing and the SAR government were forced to indefinitely postpone the much-maligned bill the week after massive demonstrations on July 1, 2003. However, ex-president Jiang, who remains China's commander-in-chief, has repeatedly pointed out in internal discussion sessions that this tough legislation must be passed as soon as possible. Diplomatic analysts noted that given the rise in Beijing's confidence in neutralizing pro-democratic elements in the SAR, it is probable that the bill will be reintroduced in the LegCo before mid-2006. The analysts said Tung, who owes Jiang and the CCP his job as well as other favors, seemed anxious to make a "last major contribution to the motherland" before he retired in 2007.

Moreover, most officials and government advisers in Beijing do not see the substantial increase in the voter turnout rate last Sunday 55.6% compared to 43.5% four years ago as a sign that Hong Kong people want to speed up democratization, or that they deserve to be granted more democratic rights. Famous law professor Xiao Weiyun, a veteran adviser to the Beijing leadership on Hong Kong matters, said after the polls that the larger turnout rate "did not mean that Hong Kong society is mature enough to justify expediting the pace of democracy."

It is true, of course, that Beijing does not want a repeat performance of the anti-Tung, anti-Article 23 demonstration on July 1, 2003. However, the apparent success of the CLGHKA's Machiavellian strategies toward Hong Kong, as demonstrated by the LegCo polls last Sunday, seems to have convinced the CCP leadership that they can get away with turning the clock back on the SAR's political rights and civil liberties.

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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