The Long March

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Using a specific issue as pretext for a general protest is a classic Chinese political tactic. The Cultural Revolution got its ominous kick start in a bad review of a play about a reformist Ming-dynasty official. The 1989 protests that culminated with the Tiananmen massacre began with what was ostensibly a memorial gathering for disgraced Chinese Communist Party General-Secretary Hu Yaobang. And in Hong Kong it is now irrefutably clear that last week's half-a-million-man march against proposed antisubversion laws, as well as this week's planned rally at the city's Legislative Council (Legco) offices, have transcended that catalyzing issue and even the broader socioeconomic fissures that brought opposition to the government to such a compelling pitch. The rallying point now is the assertion of democracy, however nominal, on Chinese soil.

It is impossible to know whether Hong Kong's current conflagration is the fault of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa or those in Beijing to whom he answers. In part, it is that lack of clear accountability—and the resulting sense that the leadership in both places is unresponsive—that has so frustrated Hong Kongers. Add to that economic insecurity and a public-health scare, and you have a recipe for Hong Kong's politicization. For the July 1 mass protest against the National Security Bill (commonly referred to as Article 23, after the constitutional provision requiring its introduction) was not merely the largest antigovernment demonstration Hong Kong has seen. It was the largest pro-democracy protest anywhere in China since 1989. No matter how the authorities respond—be it defiance, compromise or capitulation—the marchers have made one of the most effective statements of popular will ever in the history of the People's Republic. At stake is whether the world's next superpower will tolerate a democratic model of development in one of its supposedly showcase cities. "It's not just about Article 23," notes Allen Lee, an outspoken Hong Kong delegate to China's National People's Congress. "Beijing's leaders must look at the whole question of governance. Hong Kong people want democracy."

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July 14, 2003 Issue

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That the stage for change should be set in the deep south will surprise no one with a cursory knowledge of modern Chinese history. Sun Yat-sen and fellow revolutionaries attempted at least half a dozen rebellions from Hong Kong before 1911. In the 1920s, the early leaders of the Chinese Communist Party used Hong Kong, where they were tolerated by the British, as a base for the dissemination of propaganda into China, where they were outlawed.

Now the south seems on a slow boil once again—which can only vex and worry Beijing. That a showdown in Hong Kong's once rubber-stamp Legco now looms is as surprising to Hong Kongers as it is alarming to Beijing. Previously, the faux parliament could be counted on to support whatever legislation Tung's Administration was ramming through. Now, suddenly, pundits in Hong Kong are canvasing Legco members and counting votes to see whether Tung has enough support to enact the Article 23 bill. That already sounds like the noisy clanging of democratic machinery, and that was not what China's leaders had in mind when they selected the aloof and stoic Tung to be Hong Kong's Chief Executive after the territory's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. They backed him—and renewed that support when he went for a second five-year term in 2002, despite his already dismal approval ratings—because they could count on his loyalty in keeping Hong Kong pacified and obedient. But now, Tung, 66, and his beleaguered Administration have become objects of public resentment and ridicule. Through his inability to tackle the various crises—economic, political, epidemiological and now constitutional—besieging Hong Kong, Tung has inadvertently politicized the city and become a liability to Beijing by making Hong Kong emblematic of a larger Chinese issue: the pace of political reform. "Because the Chinese leadership backed Tung," notes Shi Yinhong, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing, "the standing of the central government itself is on the line." That sentiment is echoed by Ma Ngok, a social scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology: "Beijing is slowly getting the general idea that things are getting out of control in Hong Kong." And any sense of crisis in Hong Kong causes problematic ripples not only up north but also across the Taiwan Strait. The mainland has held up Hong Kong's promised autonomy and "one country, two systems" as a model for reunifying with Taiwan. But the Article 23 bill, says Joseph Jaushieh Wu, an official in Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's office, has "further confirmed suspicions among the Taiwan people about the reliability of Beijing's promises."

How did Beijing get it so wrong? That such a large demonstration caught the central government unaware represented a massive intelligence failure by the Communist Party's new leadership. None of Beijing's hundreds of officials in Hong Kong had warned that the July 1 march would amount to more than a few tens of thousands of people, drawn from the usual ranks of activists and art students who light candles during yearly vigils marking Tiananmen's anniversary. "The problem was similar to SARS," surmises Shang Dewen, a professor of economics at prestigious Beijing University who has long advocated democratic reforms. "People at the low levels didn't want to report bad news up the chain." The obvious failure of Hong Kong policy could now force Party boss Hu Jiantao to replace officials in Hong Kong, much as he sacked the health minister and Beijing's mayor in the middle of the SARS cover-up. "This is a huge problem for the government," says Bao Tong, a former top Party official who was purged and imprisoned after Tiananmen. "That demonstrations will spread to China is the first thing the leaders will think of."

Though he's Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Tung seems even more out of touch than Beijing with passions in his own backyard. The son of a shipping tycoon, Tung affects a patrician, I-know-best attitude. That approach might have worked during the territory's go-go decades when every Hong Konger seemed to believe he too could become a tycoon—and indeed it did work for generations of colonial governors. But since the territory's real estate and stock-market bubbles burst six years ago, Hong Kongers have had to cope with rising unemployment rates and plunging wages; the sense that the Chief Executive not only doesn't understand what it is like to work for a diminishing paycheck but doesn't care is overwhelming. Hong Kong, in the midst of a prolonged economic slump and reeling from an epidemic outbreak, needs a leader who can empathize and simultaneously sell a promise of better times to come.

Tung fails spectacularly on both counts, and the chasm between him and his constituents has only widened with his handling of the Article 23 bill. The problems with the proposed law are by now well documented. Article 23 was inserted into Hong Kong's Basic Law in the aftermath of Tiananmen. The bill written to implement it seeks to apply mainland Chinese-style security laws to Hong Kong and, unsurprisingly, is feared by a wide spectrum of Hong Kongers as a potential tool to squash dissent and opposition. If passed, the legislation would create the new and vaguely defined offences of secession (the wide applicability of which threatens the many economic and cultural ties Hong Kongers have with Taiwan and Tibet) and subversion (applying that to peaceful demonstrations or industrial action would be child's play for Beijing). Even academic libraries may be affected, since they are duty-bound to compile material for research, regardless of its political content.

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