Friday, June 29, 2007

Red Flags and Green Mail Boxes

This is the first of a two-part story.

When anyone asks me what has changed in Hong Kong in the 10 years since its return to China and the departure of the British, I usually say you see a lot of red flags flying (mostly flags of Hong Kong, not China) and the red Royal Mail boxes have been painted Hong Kong Post green.

That sounds rather flip, but in fact to me very has little changed. Street cars (called trams here) still trundle down streets named after colonial governors. Barristers still address red judges (from the color of their gowns not their political persuasion) as “your worship”.

One would be hard pressed to uncover many significant changes since the British Union Jack was hauled down and the red and yellow flag of China raised over the territory at midnight on the night of June 30, 1997, ending 156 years of British colonial rule and ushering in the untried political concept known as “one country, two systems.”

That’s not to say that the intervening decade has been easy. By some strange confluence of events the Asian Financial Crisis hit the region exactly one day after the handover with the precipitous fall of the Thai baht. There followed years of economic stagnation and unusually high unemployment from which Hong Kong is only now recovering.

There were other traumas, especially the deadly and frightening outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003. Add to that a crash in property prices, a bird flu outbreak, scandals in the hospital administration. None, with the possible exception of SARs, could be fairly blamed, even partially, on China.

Hong Kong’s first native Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa struggled, mostly unsuccessfully, to cope with these problems. He lost the confidence of most Hong Kong people early on and belatedly that of Beijing too. Halfway through his second term he resigned, and the mandate of heaven passed to his deputy Donald Tsang, a career civil servant more competent and politically adept than his predecessor.

As the fateful date of July 1, 1997, approached, Hong Kong and China had eyed each other warily. For Hong Kong, of course, the fear was that China would break its promises to allow the territory to keep its freedoms and way of life once the British (and most of the world’s press) had departed.

The Chinese had their own anxieties that Hong Kong that would turn into a base from which to subvert communist rule on the mainland. This fear was not unfounded. Hong Kong people had overwhelmingly and openly sided with the students who occupied Tiananmen Square in May 1989 until they were brutally suppressed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the night of June 4.

In the wake of Tiananmen, Beijing insisted on inserting new language into the draft of Hong Kong’s post-1997 charter, the Basic Law, obliging the SAR [Special Administrative Region] government to enact laws to suppress “subversion” and protect “state secrets” which are pretty loosely defined in China.

Article 23, as it was known, was considered so sensitive and so potentially damaging to “confidence” in Hong Kong’s future, that the government waited five years before acting. By then, it reasoned, Hong Kong people had become more comfortable with and less fearful of China’s ambitions to dismantle its freedoms. It was a serious miscalculation.

On July 1, 2003, a holiday in Hong Kong meant to celebrate the glorious return of the colony to the motherland half a million people (me included) turned out in a massive demonstration against Article 23 and the Hong Kong government in general. In its wake Tung withdrew the proposed bill indefinitely.

In a way it was China’s worst nightmare come true – except that it was so peaceful that one could (and some did) push baby strollers. One can only imagine the consequences had things turned violent, with rioters burning cars and smashing windows, requiring the government to call on the PLA garrison for support.

The demonstrators had many rude things to say about Tung Chee-hwa, but did not criticize China’s leaders, something that Beijing cannot fail to have noticed. Indeed, Premier Wen Jiabao was in town (he departed just before the demo), and he was greeted respectfully, even warmly, everywhere he went.

Ten years after the handover, Article 23 is a dead issue. The government shows no sign of wanting to reintroduce legislation, and there are no signs that Beijing is pushing it to do so or will anytime in the near future.

In terms of its political development, Hong Kong is about where the last British governor, Chris Patten, left it in 1997. That is, half of the legislature, known as the Legislative Council or Legco, is directly elected through universal suffrage. The other half is chosen through specialized “functional constituencies” of professional groups, such as doctors and lawyers.

The Chief Executive, analogous to the former British governor, is appointed by Beijing on the advice of an 800-person “selection committee” made up mainly of conservative businessmen and other notables.

Immediately after the handover, literally in the wee hours of July 1, the so-called provisional legislature repealed many of Patten’s democratic reforms, cutting the number of directly elected seats 20. Even so the first post-handover election in 1998 saw most of prominent democrats returned to Legco.

In the ensuing decade, the number of directly elected seats expanded to 30 in accordance with a timetable spelled out in precise detail in the Basic Law. Unfortunately, the charter turns vague after this point saying only that it is a goal to eventually, sometime in the future, in the here and yon, to elect all of the Legco and the chief executive through universal suffrage.

Therein lies the current political deadlock. Beijing has served notice that it will not approve any further political changes anytime soon. I’ve always had the hunch that Beijing is waiting for former chief secretary Anson Chan, now 68, to pass from the scene before risking the sensitive post of chief to the popular will.

At the time of the handover, Anson was by far the most popular political figure in Hong Kong. If the post had been filled though a direct election, she would have won hands down. But she was (and still is) deeply distrusted by the Beijing hierarchy because of her past association with the British.

Though retired, Anson thrust herself onto the political scene last year when she went on the radio to urge people to turn out for the July 1 pro-democracy march, now pretty much an annual event, which boosted the numbers from previous years. There was also talk that she might challenge Donald Tsang in the selection committee, although in the end she did not put herself forward.

Of course, it is equally plausible, even likely, that the answer is simpler. China is happy with Hong Kong’s current system and is in no mood to change things. Every now and then a prominent Beijing official admonishes Hong Kong to forget about full democracy and stick to making money.

For example in March National People’s Congress vice chairman Cheng Sewei said, “If Hong Kong people focus on internal political rows and not economic development they might be marginalized.” He knew where to stick the stiletto, playing on Hong Kong’s barely suppressed anxiety about being overtaken and rendered irrelevant by Singapore or Shanghai, two places where there is no nonsense about democracy.

Todd Crowell lived in Hong Kong from 1987 to 2004. He is the author of Farewell, My Colony: Last Years in the Life of British Hong Kong

This is the first of a two-part story.

When anyone asks me what has changed in Hong Kong in the 10 years since its return to China and the departure of the British, I usually say you see a lot of red flags flying (mostly flags of Hong Kong, not China) and the red Royal Mail boxes have been painted Hong Kong Post green.

That sounds rather flip, but in fact to me very has little changed. Street cars (called trams here) still trundle down streets named after colonial governors. Barristers still address red judges (from the color of their gowns not their political persuasion) as “your worship”.

One would be hard pressed to uncover many significant changes since the British Union Jack was hauled down and the red and yellow flag of China raised over the territory at midnight on the night of June 30, 1997, ending 156 years of British colonial rule and ushering in the untried political concept known as “one country, two systems.”

That’s not to say that the intervening decade has been easy. By some strange confluence of events the Asian Financial Crisis hit the region exactly one day after the handover with the precipitous fall of the Thai baht. There followed years of economic stagnation and unusually high unemployment from which Hong Kong is only now recovering.

There were other traumas, especially the deadly and frightening outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003. Add to that a crash in property prices, a bird flu outbreak, scandals in the hospital administration. None, with the possible exception of SARs, could be fairly blamed, even partially, on China.

Hong Kong’s first native Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa struggled, mostly unsuccessfully, to cope with these problems. He lost the confidence of most Hong Kong people early on and belatedly that of Beijing too. Halfway through his second term he resigned, and the mandate of heaven passed to his deputy Donald Tsang, a career civil servant more competent and politically adept than his predecessor.

As the fateful date of July 1, 1997, approached, Hong Kong and China had eyed each other warily. For Hong Kong, of course, the fear was that China would break its promises to allow the territory to keep its freedoms and way of life once the British (and most of the world’s press) had departed.

The Chinese had their own anxieties that Hong Kong that would turn into a base from which to subvert communist rule on the mainland. This fear was not unfounded. Hong Kong people had overwhelmingly and openly sided with the students who occupied Tiananmen Square in May 1989 until they were brutally suppressed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the night of June 4.

In the wake of Tiananmen, Beijing insisted on inserting new language into the draft of Hong Kong’s post-1997 charter, the Basic Law, obliging the SAR [Special Administrative Region] government to enact laws to suppress “subversion” and protect “state secrets” which are pretty loosely defined in China.

Article 23, as it was known, was considered so sensitive and so potentially damaging to “confidence” in Hong Kong’s future, that the government waited five years before acting. By then, it reasoned, Hong Kong people had become more comfortable with and less fearful of China’s ambitions to dismantle its freedoms. It was a serious miscalculation.

On July 1, 2003, a holiday in Hong Kong meant to celebrate the glorious return of the colony to the motherland half a million people (me included) turned out in a massive demonstration against Article 23 and the Hong Kong government in general. In its wake Tung withdrew the proposed bill indefinitely.

In a way it was China’s worst nightmare come true – except that it was so peaceful that one could (and some did) push baby strollers. One can only imagine the consequences had things turned violent, with rioters burning cars and smashing windows, requiring the government to call on the PLA garrison for support.

The demonstrators had many rude things to say about Tung Chee-hwa, but did not criticize China’s leaders, something that Beijing cannot fail to have noticed. Indeed, Premier Wen Jiabao was in town (he departed just before the demo), and he was greeted respectfully, even warmly, everywhere he went.

Ten years after the handover, Article 23 is a dead issue. The government shows no sign of wanting to reintroduce legislation, and there are no signs that Beijing is pushing it to do so or will anytime in the near future.

In terms of its political development, Hong Kong is about where the last British governor, Chris Patten, left it in 1997. That is, half of the legislature, known as the Legislative Council or Legco, is directly elected through universal suffrage. The other half is chosen through specialized “functional constituencies” of professional groups, such as doctors and lawyers.

The Chief Executive, analogous to the former British governor, is appointed by Beijing on the advice of an 800-person “selection committee” made up mainly of conservative businessmen and other notables.

Immediately after the handover, literally in the wee hours of July 1, the so-called provisional legislature repealed many of Patten’s democratic reforms, cutting the number of directly elected seats 20. Even so the first post-handover election in 1998 saw most of prominent democrats returned to Legco.

In the ensuing decade, the number of directly elected seats expanded to 30 in accordance with a timetable spelled out in precise detail in the Basic Law. Unfortunately, the charter turns vague after this point saying only that it is a goal to eventually, sometime in the future, in the here and yon, to elect all of the Legco and the chief executive through universal suffrage.

Therein lies the current political deadlock. Beijing has served notice that it will not approve any further political changes anytime soon. I’ve always had the hunch that Beijing is waiting for former chief secretary Anson Chan, now 68, to pass from the scene before risking the sensitive post of chief to the popular will.

At the time of the handover, Anson was by far the most popular political figure in Hong Kong. If the post had been filled though a direct election, she would have won hands down. But she was (and still is) deeply distrusted by the Beijing hierarchy because of her past association with the British.

Though retired, Anson thrust herself onto the political scene last year when she went on the radio to urge people to turn out for the July 1 pro-democracy march, now pretty much an annual event, which boosted the numbers from previous years. There was also talk that she might challenge Donald Tsang in the selection committee, although in the end she did not put herself forward.

Of course, it is equally plausible, even likely, that the answer is simpler. China is happy with Hong Kong’s current system and is in no mood to change things. Every now and then a prominent Beijing official admonishes Hong Kong to forget about full democracy and stick to making money.

For example in March National People’s Congress vice chairman Cheng Sewei said, “If Hong Kong people focus on internal political rows and not economic development they might be marginalized.” He knew where to stick the stiletto, playing on Hong Kong’s barely suppressed anxiety about being overtaken and rendered irrelevant by Singapore or Shanghai, two places where there is no nonsense about democracy.

Todd Crowell lived in Hong Kong from 1987 to 2004. He is the author of Farewell, My Colony: Last Years in the Life of British Hong Kong

1 Comments:

Blogger fredz said...

Todd, you radical, I didn't know you were a demonstrator in Hong Kong in 2003. Could that have placed you into a compromising position?

Are you back in Hong Kong now?

Greetings from San Clemente.

June 29, 2007 at 9:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home