New deal between Beijing, Hong Kong


HONG KONG — Almost two years ago, on July 1, 2003, well over half a million people marched through the streets of Hong Kong to protest against a national-security bill that they feared threatened their rights and freedoms. The massive demonstration shook the Hong Kong government to its foundations and was followed by the shelving of the bill and the resignation of two principal officials.

The Chinese government, too, was shocked. For six years, Chinese leaders had relied on Tung Chee-hwa, the territory’s chief executive since its reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, to run Hong Kong and to keep it stable and prosperous. They had implicit trust in Tung, who had been chosen by then-President Jiang Zemin.

The protest led Chinese leaders to take a new look at Hong Kong and the way it was being handled. Vice President Zeng Qinghong was put in charge. To ascertain just what the problems were, large numbers of investigators were dispatched to the territory, and reports compiled for the leadership. The upshot was that the central government decided that it had to take a more hands-on approach where Hong Kong was concerned but to do so in a subtle fashion if possible.

The imminent swearing in of former Chief Secretary Donald Tsang as the next chief executive is the culmination of this two-year-long effort by Beijing to regain control of Hong Kong and to ensure stability in the former British colony.

To bring about this situation, Beijing used a mixture of sticks and carrots. The main carrots were the economic benefits brought to Hong Kong through the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, which brought to Hong Kong large numbers of mainland tourists. Unemployment has been brought down from over 8 percent to the current 5.7 percent.

The sticks consisted of a show of force. Hong Kong was reminded that Beijing was its master and that while the territory was meant to enjoy “a high degree of autonomy,” the central government’s tolerance was not unlimited.

The primary targets in Hong Kong, of course, were the democrats. For months, a campaign was waged during which democratic leaders were attacked — some by name — and accused of being unpatriotic and, in some cases, of supporting independence for Taiwan and Hong Kong. The primary goal of the democrats — universal suffrage in the next elections for the chief executive and the entire legislature — was ruled out of bounds by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

As a result, Tung publicly acknowledged that any future move toward a more representative government must first have the approval of the central government. The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, had allowed the process to begin in Hong Kong.

These actions caused unhappiness with the central government on the part of many Hong Kong residents, who for years had held Beijing in high regard even though they scorned the Tung administration.

As a result, another large demonstration was held on July 1 last year, albeit smaller than the one in 2003. National-security legislation was no longer an issue and the economy was showing signs of recovery. But the demand for universal suffrage was still strong.

Beijing was apprehensive that popular dissatisfaction would translate into votes for the democrats during the legislative elections last September. Chinese officials worked hard- and successfully behind the scenes and, in the end, the democrats were limited to 25 seats, well under half of the 60-seat body.

China’s efforts have been most successful. The economy is recovering strongly and the unpopular Tung is being replaced by Donald Tsang, by far the most popular official in the government.

In fact, China is making sure that the Hong Kong administration does not pursue any policies that might spark popular unrest. This has effectively deprived the democrats of issues. The widespread dissatisfaction within Hong Kong society has dissipated.

All this suggests that a new bargain is being struck between Beijing and Hong Kong. The central government will ensure effective governance and economic prosperity in return for Hong Kong people’s withdrawing their push for politically sensitive reforms, such as universal suffrage.

The job of Tsang, the new chief executive, is to be the interface between Beijing and Hong Kong. He has to ensure harmony and political stability by delivering good governance and economic prosperity. In this way, Beijing hopes, demands for universal suffrage can be kept in abeyance. Whether this compact will work depends to a large extent on how Tsang performs in the next two years.