City of Bad Omens

City of Bad Omens

Mini Teaser: As every schoolboy would once have known, traditionally the Chinesehave believed that a dynasty reigns because it has been vouchsafeddivine approval--the Mandate of Heaven.

by Author(s): Robert Elegant

Ironically, the event that put Beijing on its guard demonstrated
strong sympathy between the people of Hong Kong and the mainlanders
whose interest in democratic politics Beijing sought to crush. In
1989 Hong Kong was profoundly moved by the June 4 massacre in Beijing
of students and workers campaigning for democracy, and by the
persecution of all dissidents, however mild, throughout China. A
million men and women gathered in a candle-lit vigil in Hong Kong.
Such vigils on a somewhat smaller scale have occurred every year
since, including 1998. Hong Kong was until July 1, 1997 a haven for
refugee dissidents and provided funds for their movement. Naturally,
Beijing is determined to crush that independent spirit.

The people of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong again proved themselves
vitally interested in politics in 1995, when the second legislative
election in its history took place. Twenty of the sixty seats were to
be filled by direct public election, twenty by the governor's direct
appointment, and twenty by "functional constituencies", which meant
groups demarcated by occupation. That election was a further step
toward democracy, not a great leap. Governor Patten, who would have
liked a far more democratic election, was constrained by the
diplomats' prior agreement with Beijing that only a third of the
legislators would be directly elected.

Still, some 35 percent of those eligible came to the polls--and voted
overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party of barrister Martin Lee. He
stood for increased democracy and for vigorous resistance to the
encroachment on freedom that he foresaw when Beijing took power in
July 1997. The Democrats could do nothing about the handover, of
course. That was an irreversible fait accompli. But the elections did
show Beijing that most of the people did not want Chinese rule.

That election and the legislature it produced were the centerpiece of
the democratic innovations introduced by Patten. Those limited
changes evoked the vehement protests of the Foreign Office clique
dedicated to serene Sino-British relations at any cost. Those
protests were echoed by both British and Chinese taipans--the big
businessmen who have accumulated hundreds of millions, even billions,
of dollars. Among the paradoxes of Hong Kong, the rich are for the
communists, while the masses definitely are not.

Both the Foreign Office and the taipans are now busily chipping away
at Patten's solid reputation in retaliation for his reforms, which
they still contend have impeded Hong Kong's chief business--which is,
of course, business. Both those groups had wanted a smooth transfer
of sovereignty because they believed their own interests were best
served by truckling to Beijing. Neither the diplomats nor the taipans
could imagine that Beijing's suzerainty would signal an economic
decline. They believed--or professed to believe--that the mass of
Hong Kong's people would be just as well--if not better--off under
Chinese rule. Yet from the very beginning the new regime was dogged
by unforeseen problems that have severely impeded both general
economic development and corporate profits.

The first was simply a problem of credibility. Even before the
takeover, the government-to-be had declared the 1995 legislative
election invalid and had appointed its own legislature in waiting. An
elaborate and intricate process handpicked committees to select
committees to choose committees that finally elected the legislators.
That complicated mummery convinced no one that the legislature that
took its seats on July 1, 1997 reflected the popular will. No more
did the layers of committees that selected Tung Chee-hwa as chief
executive carry conviction. Everyone knew that Tung had been chosen
by President Jiang Zemin, who confirmed his choice by ostentatiously
shaking hands with Tung under the television lenses long before the
charade of selection by committee began. Tung was selected because he
would do Beijing's bidding without question. He was, after all,
indebted to Beijing. Having mismanaged his father's shipping fleet
into near bankruptcy, he had survived by borrowing some $250 million
through friends of the regime.

Nor did the procedure for electing a new legislature in May 1998
enhance the regime's democratic credibility. There were still sixty
seats, and again only twenty were filled by popular election. Of the
rest twenty were appointed directly, as under Patten's reforms,
because the Sino-British agreement provided for such a procedure.
Twenty were again chosen by "functional constituencies", associations
of, say, gold traders, doctors, bankers, lawyers, and the like. So
too had they been under Patten, because the Basic Law drafted by
Beijing and the Foreign Office so provided. This echo of Benito
Mussolini's corporate state was either not recognized as such or else
failed to disturb the architects of the new Hong Kong, which was to
be ruled by democracy Beijing style--essentially a more efficient and
more invasive authoritarianism than Mussolini's fascism.

Nonetheless, the first legislative election after the handover was a
stunning repudiation of Tung Chee-hwa's reign. In torrents of rain
and with winds of near typhoon violence, a remarkable 53 percent of
the general electorate turned out to choose the twenty legislators
representing the general public. They returned fifteen candidates
from Martin Lee's Democratic Party and its close allies. The
remaining five came from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment
of Hong Kong, a mildly leftist, old-line labor party that does not
truckle to Beijing. Although the voting pattern had been rigged to
favor pro-Beijing candidates, not a single one was elected by the
general public. In the functional constituencies, five more Democrats
were chosen, although the number eligible to vote by occupation had
been reduced from some 1.15 million to less than 150,000.

It was a smashing victory for the advocates of democracy and
independence, a stinging repudiation of Tung and his puppet-masters
in Beijing. In immediate practical terms it was something less. A
majority of the sixty legislators will vote as Beijing directs, for
the twenty appointed directly and the functional constituencies,
largely the realm of big business, returned some fifteen pro-Beijing
candidates. Martin Lee is now all but literally the leader of the
opposition in communist China, since nowhere else in the sprawling
nation is any opposition party tolerated. Of course, the SAR will
continue to run as Beijing directs. But a spark of democracy will
glow in Hong Kong until either Beijing stamps it out or until the
Chinese capital itself changes even more radically than it is
changing at the moment.

In the year 2002 a committee of eight hundred is to select the next
chief executive, either Tung Chee-hwa or another equally subservient
to Beijing. In 2007 the successive chief executive is supposed to be
popularly elected, although Tung has already said he feels that may
be too soon. He has also decried Hong Kong's excessive Westernization
and restricted teaching in English, a measure originally planned by
the outgoing colonial administration to facilitate the Sinicization
of Hong Kong. Yet switching to Cantonese as the language of
instruction is downright silly. Not only will graduates of the newly
restricted schools not have mastered the international language,
English, but they won't even be adept in Mandarin, China's common
national language.

The press, radio, and television are already constrained, mostly the
result of the fears of reporters and editors under pressure from
proprietors. Such self-censorship is probably more effective that
outright censorship, since it knows no bounds. Direct censorship has
not been imposed, but the Chinese-language media are harassed. The
frankly oppositionist Apple Daily has been charged with violations of
employment laws and other non-journalistic offenses. The
English-language press, the barometer by which most outside observers
assess Hong Kong's political weather, is still reasonably free of
interference. But only a few regularly read the English press and
they are predominantly foreigners who are mostly transients and thus
don't really matter. But Radio Television Hong Kong, an editorially
autonomous public entity rather like the BBC which broadcasts in
English and Cantonese, has been fiercely attacked for failing to
present government policy "positively." Hong Kong's new regime really
cannot see the difference between a quasi-independent broadcasting
service financed by the government and a wholly government-controlled
service--no more than can Beijing.

Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader who died a few months before
the handover he had enforced, made several promises to Hong Kong to
sweeten the pill. He did so in part to save British face by fostering
the illusion that London had successfully negotiated modifications of
Beijing's original conditions, for the benefit of the people of Hong
Kong. But his chief purpose was to reassure the people so that they
would, as he advised, "set their hearts at ease." Deng did not want a
frightened or agitated populace that would reduce a prosperous SAR's
ability to spin money for the People's Republic.

Despite Deng's reassurances, tens of thousands of the emerging middle
class fled each year from 1984 onwards. More would have left had they
been able. They were quite right to doubt Deng's promises.

The paramount leader had guaranteed that Hong Kong's social and
economic system would not change for at least fifty years after the
handover. He had encapsulated his guarantees in a simple formula: One
country, two systems. However, Tung Chee-hwa recently declared that
whenever the two principles clashed, one country took absolute
precedence over two systems. The principles clashed repeatedly during
the first year of Tung's term. He further assured his own followers
that dissenting voices on Radio Television Hong Kong would be
silenced--all in good time. So would public demonstrations protesting
government actions.

Essay Types: Essay