July 18, 2003 | WebMemo on Asia
In the aftermath of a half-million-strong popular protest against strict new anti-sedition laws, the resignation of two senior Hong Kong cabinet officials on July 16 provides convincing evidence that Hong Kong's political culture has the potential to withstand dictates from China's leadership. Although, to date, the Bush Administration and Congress have performed admirably in supporting Hong Kong's pursuit of democratic ideals, the momentum of such a grassroots movement towards democracy must be maintained. To this end, the Administration and Congress should:
Discontent in Hong Kong
The present governing crisis in the Hong Kong "Special Administrative Region" (SAR) of China came to a head on July 1 when over a half-million of the SAR's 6 million citizens marched in protest against strict new anti-sedition laws, the "Article 23" legislation. The magnitude of the public outcry was a shock to Beijing, which has not experienced such a grassroots rebellion since China's budding democracy movement was brutally suppressed in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 by Chinese People's Liberation Army.
While no one would have expected the authoritarian regime in Beijing to be sensitive to the political aspirations of Hong Kong's people, it would seem that Hong Kong's own government should have been aware of rising public discontent. Yet, Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed chief executive, Mr. C.H. Tung, was deaf to the demands of his own people, and this may ultimately lead to his downfall. Following the removal of his two top aides, Mr. Tung himself will make a "duty visit" to Beijing on July 19-20 to brief the Chinese leadership about recent events.
Mixed Signals from Beijing
Within a week of the massive July 1 demonstration, continuing protests gave a number of pro-Beijing members of Hong Kong's legislative council reason to worry that their own political legitimacy was in peril. One such politician flew to Beijing for orders two days after the protest, only to be faced with a political contest within China's own leadership. Chinese officials, apparently loyal to China's new president Hu Jintao and new premier Wen Jiabao-both considered "reformists" of a sort-said the Chinese government had no particular interest in either the "content or the timing" of the new Article 23 legislation. Meanwhile, Beijing's propaganda ministry, which controls China's official state-run media and whose loyalty appears to be to former president Jiang Zemin, demanded that the anti-sedition legislation be passed as written "on schedule."
With mixed signals from Beijing, Hong Kong's pro-China politicians were in disarray. Several abandoned the government's attempts to pass the controversial anti-sedition legislation, and one even resigned from Chief Executive C.H. Tung's cabinet. With that resignation and retreat, the bill faced certain defeat in the legislature. Finally, on July 7, after a weekend of desperate but fruitless negotiations with pro-Beijing politicians, Tung announced that he would withdraw the legislation from consideration.
This was unprecedented. Never before in the SAR's six-year history, had a government bill ever been halted by a public outcry. In Beijing, the Communist Party Propaganda Department was aghast. Immediately, the New China News Agency (Xinhua) exhorted Hong Kong's lawmakers to ignore the demonstrations and "throw their weight behind Tung's administration so that it could complete this unshirkable historic mission in a timely fashion."
On July 12, Hong Kong newspapers reported that several Beijing "observers" had been dispatched to the city to determine if "outside forces'' may have helped mobilize the rallies on July 1 to oppose the anti-sedition bill. On July 14, Beijing's official China Daily published a commentary entitled "Conspiracy to Subvert," which blasted the organizers of the July 1 march and, in fevered rhetoric, declared that the demonstration has only "alienated [the organizers] further from the masses," proclaiming that "their popularity has been on the decline.'' In addition, the official paper accused the SAR's democracy advocates of trying to transplant "Western political systems to Hong Kong.'' But Beijing's hot breath on Hong Kong's neck only further incensed the populace and, on July 13, more demonstrations took place in the city. While only 50,000 participated in these protests, the demonstrations were still an impressive display of public outrage.
On July 16, Hong Kong's security secretary, Ms. Regina Ip, resigned. Ms. Ip had led the campaign to pass the reviled legislation and was, herself, much reviled in the Hong Kong's still-free press, becoming a major liability to the chief executive. Shortly after Ms. Ip's departure, another Tung appointee, financial secretary Antony Leung, announced his resignation, amid rumors that he was under investigation for misusing his office for personal gain. Leung reportedly purchased a luxury car just weeks before he ordered a hike in auto taxes. While Leung's resignation was not directly related to the Article 23 controversy, it was evidence of deeper problems in Hong Kong's executive branch: C.H. Tung's entire cabinet appeared to be answerable only to Mr. Tung and not to the people.
U.S. Position on Hong Kong
The United States can take some credit for lending moral support to the people of Hong Kong in their quest for democratization. In 1992, Congress passed the Hong Kong Policy Act, which grants Hong Kong special trading status separate from China, exempts Hong Kong from certain export controls that apply to China, and requires the State Department to report regularly on Hong Kong's continued separate identity from China under an arrangement that Beijing calls "one country, two systems."
When the anti-sedition law was first bruited in 2002, the U.S. government reacted swiftly through speeches by senior State Department officials and confidential demarches to the Chinese government. On July 16, the White House issued a strongly worded statement, declaring flatly that "The United States opposes . . . the current version of Article 23 legislation," and said "Like Article 23, universal suffrage is enshrined in the Basic Law, and Hong Kong's leaders should now pursue it with equal industry."
In addition to the Administration's response, the U.S. Congress has also been an active and important defender of Hong Kong's liberties, passing the 1992 trade legislation and issuing several subsequent expressions of concern, including stern resolutions on June 16. While it may be undiplomatic for U.S. officials to encourage the people of Hong Kong to continue their demonstrations as the only effective method of making their voices heard, there are other effective ways of conveying support for Hong Kong's quest for democracy.
Commentary in the July 10 Wall Street Journal signed by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, James A. Kelly, "The Streets of Hong Kong," is a case in point. In this commentary, Mr. Kelly stated, " Common sense suggests that people should not have to take the extraordinary step of going into the streets to convey their views to the government." Declaring that the most effective means of implementing the will of the people is "through the institutions of democracy," he observed that the July 1 demonstrations were proof of the "importance of acting now to begin to move toward greater democracy in Hong Kong."
What the Administration and Congress Should Do
To support Hong Kong's grassroots movement towards democracy, the Administration and Congress should take the following steps: