Beijing's fears

April 07, 2004

LAST SEPTEMBER, there was an encouraging moment in Hong Kong's struggle to realize China's 1997 promise of autonomy under its takeover principle of "one country, two systems." It came after Beijing had tried over the summer to impose a tough new internal security law on the so-called special administrative region. More than 500,000 Hong Kong residents - almost one in 10 - turned out in a stirring street protest. Just two months later, China abruptly relented, putting the security law on hold - perhaps to avoid turning this year's legislative elections in the territory into a referendum on Beijing's rule.

If that glimmer of hope somehow lingered, scratch it. The Chinese legislature March 26 suddenly made moot a year of intense public debate in the South China metropolis over expanding democracy by unexpectedly announcing it would decide whether Hong Kong had the right to carry out changes to its constitution without China's approval. And yesterday, China's National People's Congress delivered the bad news: Only Beijing has the right to alter Hong Kong's political rules.

As is the Chinese leadership's style these days, the directive was marinated in legalese. A statement from the People's Congress said that, of course, this doesn't mean a slowing of the pace of political reform in Hong Kong. People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official organ, said the Chinese parliament's ruling would "lay a sound social and political foundation for long-term prosperity and stability in Hong Kong." But any way you cut it, this is a political missile fired at Hong Kong's aspirations for universal suffrage and for direct popular election of its chief executive, now appointed by a Beijing-controlled committee.

Hong Kong quickly reacted yesterday. One territory activist likened having to seek Beijing's approval for expanded political freedoms to "having to ask a robber if you can use your own money." As recently as last New Year's Day, 100,000 Hong Kong protesters again marched in support of political reforms, and it would be surprising if yesterday's move by China did not spark more protests - and a backlash in this September's legislative elections in the city, in which half the seats will be filled by voting.

That may be the only good thing to come of this - that the coming vote may yet end up as a Hong Kong referendum on Chinese rule. Somewhat ironically, some analysts are speculating that the recent re-election of pro-independence Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian prompted China to move sharply to prevent the election some day of an independent Hong Kong chief executive.

Free elections have that sort of power - to instill fear in authoritarian regimes. China likely has calculated that the divisions among democracy activists in Hong Kong are deep enough that it can get away with this new limit on the territory's autonomy. Hong Kong's elections later this year will give residents a way, at least in part, to show the world Beijing is wrong.

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