The Battle for Hong Kong

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Ray Au, a 24-year-old district councilor living in the industrial suburb of Tai Po, wants a freer Hong Kong. Two weeks ago he carried a bullhorn to a local train station to encourage people to attend the big pro-democracy rally to be held this week. A passerby cursed Au, went chest to chest with him, and accused the territory's pro-democracy advocates of being "fools" and "Chinese traitors." A crowd gathered, and another stranger interceded, punching Au's antagonist in the nose and drawing blood.

That was an ugly demonstration of how polarized Hong Kong has become since July 1 last year, when 500,000 people poured into the streets to vent against the local government. But a lot has changed since then, and indeed since Au's unpleasant encounter. Consider some very different scenes from just last week. Lawmaker Martin Lee, who's been bullhorning democracy for Hong Kong since 1989—and who has taken more rhetorical bloody noses from the mainland than anyone can count—stood up in the territory's Legislative Council (Legco) and made a motion for the people of Hong Kong "to join hands with [China's] central government." (That will be a lengthy stretch for Lee: China's leaders have called him a "traitor" and have forbidden him to set foot on the mainland since 1989.) Lee's motion passed unanimously. A few days earlier fellow libertarian and former legislator Christine Loh had suggested that the rally this Thursday, to mark the first anniversary of July 1, be dubbed a "celebration" rather than a protest. Tough-talking Bishop Joseph Zen, whose I-answer-to-a-higher-power attitude never fails to irk Beijing, met with the Liaison Office, the central government's main representative in Hong Kong, just two months after he was permitted a sentimental journey to his hometown, Shanghai—the first time he's been allowed on the mainland in six years. The meeting, Zen said, was "a breakthrough in a small way."

And that was just the start for this new mood of reconciliation. Hong Kong's Old Guard leftists and tycoons, who spent the spring fulminating about the territory's questionable patriotism and telling locals they should stick to commerce and stop talking politics, have been conspicuously silent of late. On the other side of the fence, some of the supporters of Thursday's rally got cold feet over a slogan that's already been daubed on banners and silk-screened on T shirts: RETURN POWER TO THE PEOPLE. Too provocative, they said. They encouraged marchers to stick with a less offensive motto: WE ? HONG KONG.

There's so much talk of rapprochement between Beijing and Hong Kong these days that you would think the Chinese characters for "one country, two systems" had been rejiggered to read "one big happy family." Hardly. The bridge building, which includes an array of economic gifts from China to Hong Kong (), probably reflects a sincere attempt to reduce tensions. But there is also a strong element of tactical realpolitik, much of it to do with the July 1 anniversary rally and with the election for Legco in September. By appearing reasonable and by engaging some members of Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, Beijing is trying to reduce anti-mainland sentiment during the march, split the democrats and blunt their electoral performance in September. By talking to Beijing, those democrats willing to do so have plenty to gain, too: they come across as less confrontational and therefore more appealing to the middle ground of voters who want greater freedoms without jeopardizing Hong Kong's relationship with the mainland.

Whatever their intentions, after months of confrontation, the two now find themselves in an awkward, almost accidental bear hug that "one country, two systems" was engineered to prevent. Hong Kong is supposed to be run by its own residents with "a high degree of autonomy," and that's how it worked in the years following the 1997 handover to China. But after last July's massive rally against the local government of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing set up an 18-member committee to directly oversee Hong Kong policy, chaired by Vice President Zeng Qinghong, 74, who is now China's go-to man for the territory. At first, Zeng merely watched Hong Kong closely, dispatching additional intelligence officers and diversifying Beijing's sources of information beyond its usual channels to include even Hong Kong democrats. "The Liaison Office has done a lousy job of reflecting what's happening in Hong Kong," says tycoon James Tien, head of the pro-business Liberal Party. "They don't go out enough, they don't hear enough people, they keep talking to the so-called leftist camp, but don't get a whole perspective."

So when pro-democracy candidates swept the District Council elections last November, Beijing was caught unawares. Within weeks, says Shiu Sin-por, head of the pro-China One Country Two Systems Research Institute in Hong Kong, "the central government stepped in; they wanted to get involved from the beginning to the end." Zeng immediately upped the head count at the Liaison Office by appointing several trusted allies, established a new think tank on Hong Kong policy (headed by a former classmate), and deployed a swarm of fact finders. In January, says Shiu, the central government launched a propaganda campaign. Legal experts defended Beijing's constitutional supremacy over Hong Kong, and pro-democracy figures were derided as "clowns" and "traitors." Further asserting its authority, Beijing also spelled out the limits of democracy in Hong Kong: the Standing Committee of China's legislature decided in April to disallow direct elections for the Chief Executive in 2007 and for the entire Legco in 2008.

Against this backdrop, Thursday's rally has become a confused struggle for Hong Kong's political soul. The issues that brought people to the streets last year—dissatisfaction with Tung, the desire to directly elect the local government—haven't gone away, but have receded in the face of Beijing's new dominance over the territory. So what are Hong Kongers to do? On the one hand, they could heed the call of Bishop Zen to don white clothes (as a symbol of protest) and head to the rally's gathering point in Victoria Park. "We have to tell Beijing how sad we are, and frustrated, and even how angry we are," says Zen. "We have been completely disregarded, we have been insulted, we have been taught a lesson as if we were not patriotic, and this is so unfair." Or they could choose to take a very different signal from Zeng, who interrupted a state visit to Tunisia last week to comment on faraway Hong Kong. Asked about the recent attempts at rapprochement by the territory's liberal lawmakers, Zeng told reporters that there was no need for reconciliation because China had no conflicts with anyone. In jittery Hong Kong, that comment was played up as an expression of goodwill.

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