Friday, September 16, 2005

Zeng Qinghong's Charm Offensive

While China’s President Hu Jintao was speaking to the United Nations, meeting with President George W. Bush and visiting Canada and Mexico, the country’s vice president, Mr. Zeng Qinghong, was on the road too – to Hong Kong, where he presided over the grand opening of Hong Kong Disneyland.

No doubt Mr. Zeng had more on his mind than Donald Duck. One key purpose was to demonstrate Beijing’s support for Donald Tsang, the new chief executive who took office in July. During his three-day visit the veep pressed the flesh, toured an old folks home and was genial and approachable to everyone, People lapped it up.

During the first few years after handover in 1997 major state leaders, such as ex-president Jiang Zemin, confined themselves to their hotels or the Convention Center, where China’s flag is ceremoniously raised on the morning of July 1, the anniversary of the hand over. They did not then feel comfortable mixing with ordinary people.

Premier Wen Jaibao broke that mold in 2003 when he mounted a charm campaign in a Hong Kong just recovering from the trauma of the SARS epidemic and embroiled in a furious controversy over government plans to enact a “national security law,” delineating actions against treason, sedition and protection of state secrets.

Mr. Wen toured a downtown shopping mall and paid a call at Amoy Gardens, a housing estate that suffered many deaths during the epidemic. His visit was a public relations triumph, though one overshadowed by the humungous protest march that scuttled the national security ordinance. The marchers directed their ire at Hong Kong’s leaders not Beijing.

Eight years after the handover Beijing’s communist leaders no longer looks on Hong Kong, as it did in the wake of the Tiananmen protests of 1989, as a base to subvert their rule. From what one can tell there has been no pressure on Hong Kong to ressurect the anti-subversion laws.

Beijing has come around to the idea that to run Hong Kong effectively it has to expand its contacts beyond the familiar small circle of business tycoons and old-line Hong Kong left-wingers while ignoring the democrats. That strategy failed in coping with the crises that engulfed Hong Kong almost from the day the SAR was born: the Asian Financial Crisis, bird flu, SARS, Lexusgate, and the anti-subversive activities law.

So Beijing took a new tack. Its biggest move was to push former Chief Executive Tung-Chee-hwa out and replace him with Donald Tsang. They did so even though Tsang had served the British, prospered under them and even accepted a knighthood. He is sitting pretty. His public approval ratings are sky-high, and he is secure in the Beijing’s backing. Though he rose through the civil service, Tsang is proving to be a natural in his second calling as a politician.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s attitude towards the democratic opposition seems to be moderating, as it reaches out to broader spectrum of people. Previously, Beijing’s leaders looked on Martin Lee and other leading democrats as essentially foreign agents, out to undermine the loyal and patriotic officials it had picked to run the territory after the British departed.

As far as anyone knows, Zeng did not have any one-on-one meetings with democrats but he was the guest of honor at a banquet at the former Government House, where all 60 members of the Legislative Council (Legco), including members of the Democratic Party and allies, were invited. “All strata, all circles and all political groups in Hong Kong should put Hong Kong’s overall interests first,” Zeng toasted.

On September 25-26 Donald Tsang plans to take all 60 members of the Legco to meet with local officials in Guangzhou, including the Guangdong province Communist Party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, a member of the Politburo. For many of the democrats it will be their first visit to the mainland in years. They have been barred from entering since 1989, when they threw their support wholeheartedly behind the students in Tiananmen Square.

It probably helps Beijing’s own comfort zone that the democratic alliance is currently fragmented. The Democratic Party stumbled in the Legco election a year ago. Although democrats as a whole increased their influence in the legislature, the Democratic Party actually lost seats. Chairman Yeung Sum resigned to take blame, and the party is regrouping under its new leader, Lee Wing-tat.

Nonetheless, everybody knows that one way or another the issue of expanding direct elections will return. Hong Kong is rife with rumors that Tsang will propose an initiative, perhaps in his October policy address. By some accounts, this would involve adding ten seats to Legco, half of them directly elected, the other half from an electoral college of district board members (most of whom are directly elected)

An agreement apparently has been struck with Beijing that staves off, for the time being, a move to elect the chief executive directly (never mind that Tsang would win any such contest handily) while fulfilling the pledge in the Basic Law to move forward steadily but gradually to universal suffrage. The democrats will probably accept it.

This would represent a fairly large retreat by Beijing. In April, 2004, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress served notice it would not approve a popular election of the chief executive or any change in the legislature (currently half directly elected, half from functional constituencies). Maybe they will rationalize this by saying they didn’t actually rule out enlarging the Legco.

Todd Crowell Wrote Farewell, My Colony: Last Days in the Life of Hong Kong


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