Scarcely a Peep in Mainland China
by Kim Petersen
July 15, 2003
What originally began as opposition to an anti-sedition law has evolved into expressions for greater democracy in Hong Kong. A second Hong Kong demonstration brought out 50,000 on 9 July and a third follow-up protest on 13 July was much smaller ranging from 9,000 to 20,000 depending on the source. The protests are increasingly being portrayed as for democracy and against the Beijing-appointed Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. As legislator Margaret Ng remarked: “Tung has no feel for the political pulse of Hong Kong.”
Mr. Tung’s unpopularity stems more from having inherited a backsliding economy and surrounding himself with unpopular cronies.
The initial demonstration occurred on the first day of July; a massive crowd of people took to the streets to dissent against a new anti-subversion law, scheduled to pass within days but which has since been placed on the backburner to try again at a more propitious date. Media reports state it was the largest demonstration since 1989 following the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown. Hong Kong citizens protested the repression of the student-led revolt in Beijing.
Charles Chow, an articulate American-educated resident in Hong Kong, says of the demonstration: “There were at least 350,000 people present, and maybe as much as half a million. I remained passively in support of the cause.” All this was happening while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was on an official visit to show support for Hong Kong’s leaders on the anniversary of the day in which the autonomous region officially reverted back to Chinese rule.
Article 23 is the new national security legislation for governing Hong Kong.
Some fear, however, that the proposed law means China is strengthening its grip on Hong Kong.
Mr. Chow downplays the hullabaloo over Article 23 assuming “that the British had something similar in the books when they were around, so Article 23 may not be all that new.”
After all Mr. Chow asks: “Which colonial power ever allowed its subjects to openly criticize and plot subversion against it? Even the US passed its sedition laws not long after it gained independence.”
“So far,” he adds “Hong Kongers have continued to enjoy their right to assembly and more or less free speech since the handover. For example, one of the many sleazy tabloids here had on its front cover a picture of Tung Chee-hwa getting smashed by a pie. Imagine a similar cover running 100 years ago showing the British governor’s face getting slapped! Do you think the British would have allowed it?”
“The problem is that our government is making a poor sales pitch of the article to us, with its lead cheerleader Secretary for Security Regina Ip deeming democracy as not always being the solution because Hitler came to power democratically (well, he gained it about as democratically as George W. Bush). You’re not going to win hearts and minds when you invoke Hitler’s name to sell your product!”
As for the yearning for democracy underpinning the protest, Mr. Chow opines, “I think Hong Kongers are ready for democracy, and most of them want it. During the last years of British rule, limited democracy was introduced. Hong Kong citizens had a right to vote for members of the Legislative Council. This right continued after the handover, although not all councillors were directly elected by the people.”
Mr. Chow notes that the Legislative Council doesn’t have much power; the real power resides superficially with Mr. Tung and his cabinet while the actual power resides in Beijing.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, having just steered China through the SARS outbreak, is now faced with managing public dissent in Hong Kong. Shutting down media coverage in China was an easy feat but stopping word from trickling over the regional border is not so easy. With the Tiananmen Square debacle still recent history, control-conscious Beijing wishes to prevent the seeds of discontent from being sown in the mainland.
Beijing is also concerned about perceptions across the strait. Watching the goings-on in Hong Kong closely, no doubt, is Taiwan. The China-Hong Kong relationship has been billed as “One Country, Two Systems.” China has proposed a similar relationship for Taiwan to entice it back to the fold. Any diminishment of civil rights or media constraints in Hong Kong will be viewed unfavourably in Taiwan and hurt Beijing’s cause. As it now stands, Taiwan firmly rejects such an agreement with China.
Mr. Chow makes clear that in no way was the demonstration anti-Chinese.
“There is still a lot of pride among Hong Kongers of their Chinese identity. We just commemorated the sixth anniversary of the handover, and although the big protest captured headlines, Chinese flags still adorned neighborhoods all around the city. I was in Hong Kong during the handover in 1997, and I could sense the pride among the locals in reverting to Chinese rule. I felt some of it myself.”
The authorities low profile response to the demonstration might better be construed as a loosening in attitude to the expression of dissent. As such Hong Kong might be a barometer for a freer mainland China. One dissident is Han Deqiang, a Beijing professor of economics and a free thinker, who has often spoken openly with views contrary to those expressed by the Communist Party hierarchy. Mr. Han is a staunch opponent of WTO membership and the creeping neoliberalism in China. He also was one of the leaders that posted an open Internet letter, signed by many Chinese academics, opposing the war in Iraq. “In China, the ways of expressing yourself are not so smooth, so that’s why we had to come up with an idea that could make our anti-war ideas widespread,” he said.
I ask Mr. Han if he feels free to express his views?
He responds: “To some extent. Some things I can’t express freely but I must act as a check on myself.”
Meanwhile back in Hong Kong democracy still has a way to go. Mr. Chow encapsulates the demonstrators’ sentiment: “In Hong Kong, half a million of us refused to listen, and many more sympathized with them.”
Kim Petersen is an English teacher living in China. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org