Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Day Hong Kong Stood Up

July 1 is supposed to be a red-letter day for China. It celebrates the day, seven years ago, when the British Union flag was hauled down and the red and yellow banner of the People’s Republic of China was raised over Hong Kong, ending, to quote the Peoples Daily, a long, sad history of “violence, blood, humiliation and struggle” -- meaning 156 years of British colonial rule.

Yet the authorities have come to rue the day they declared July 1 a public holiday. Many Hong Kongers will forsake the beaches, forsake the cinemas, forsake the dimsum restaurants, to spend hours standing in the blazing sun listening to political speeches. Last year on July 1 more than half a million people marched through central Hong Kong in the largest such demonstration in China since 1989. Organizers expect 300,000 at this year’s protest.

The first day of July has become an iconic day but not in the way China had expected. In most people’s minds it is no longer a date celebrating the glorious return to the motherland. To paraphrase what Chairman Mao Zedong famously declared on the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, July 1 was the day that Hong Kong’s people “stood up.”

Seven years after the British departed Hong Kong’s people seem no more loyal to the PRC than they were then. Of course, everyone takes pride in being Chinese and there are plenty of people who profess to be “patriotic,” who support the “pro-Beijing” candidates in elections. But if Beijing thought that the clamor for greater democracy would fade as Western influence receded, they were mistaken.

China’s leaders are uncomfortably aware that this year’s July 1 action is going to be much more directly aimed at Beijing than it was a year ago when Hong Kongers still harbored considerable good will towards the PRC. That changed when in April the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress served notice that Hong Kong can forget about any further changes in the political system, including direct election of the chief executive and the full legislature, at least for the next decade.

The demonstration is also seen as the opening salvo in what will likely be the most divisive election in Hong Kong since the handover. Contrary to popular view, Hong Kong’s political development has not been static these past seven years. It is now about at the level where the British left it when they departed and before the Chinese rolled back some of former Gov. Chris Patten’s democratic reforms.

This September half of the 60-seat legislature will be filled through universal suffrage. The remaining 30 seats are elected from special interest constituencies made up of business and professional groups. For example, the chamber of commerce elects a member; the accountants get to choose another. Naturally, they tend to elect more politically correct “pro-business” or proBeijing” members.

For the first time the democrats think they are in striking distance of capturing a majority of the seats in the legislature (the term “democrats” as used here encompasses the Hong Kong Democratic Party as well as smaller democratic parties and independents). They are furiously jockeying to get the candidate lineup right to exact the greatest advantage in the coming election.

Still, it would take something close to a political miracle to win 30 seats plus one. To do so the democrats would have to sweep at least 25 of the directly elected seats and win a handful of special interest constituencies to offset the number of directly elected seats that will probably go to the main pro-Beijing grouping, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB).

Hong Kong is divided into a few large geographical districts each one electing five or six members through proportional representation. PR was introduced shortly after the handover specifically to give the pro-Beijing party a leg up. The democrats are counting on a huge swell in voter turnout to swamp the DAB, limiting them to at most a single member from each constituency. Then if they can pick up five or six special isnterest seats, they might get a majority.

Even if the democrats managed to win a bare majority of the legislature, it is unclear what they could do with it. The local constitution gives individual members very little leeway. Even “private member” bills must be vetted by the administration. And Beijing has clamped down on these rules, ensuring, for example, that the central government be informed in advance of any proposed changes in the electoral system.

The democrats will find themselves all dressed up with no place to go. Still, a legislature dominated by democrats will further stymie Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s ability to govern adding to local frustrations and becoming an ever present rebuke to the Communist rulers on the mainland.






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