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."
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 would loom in Hong Kong's once rubber-stamp Legco is as surprising to Hong Kongers as it is alarming to Beijing, but late Sunday night turned into high noon as James Tien, chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, resigned abruptly from Tung's cabinet as his calls to delay a vote on the bill were rejected. Last week pundits in Hong Kong were already canvasing Legco members and counting votes to see whether Tung had enough support to enact the Article 23 bill; Tien's resignation indicated unequivocally that the tide had turned. In the early hours of Monday morning, the Chief Exuctive announced an unprecedented reversal: the government would defer its vote on the controversial laws.
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.
Although colonial-era security laws that remain on the statute books are in some ways more Draconian, the Article 23 bill is nonetheless felt to be more threatening to civil liberties because it will be Beijing, not Britain, that applies it. Driving this concern is the fundamental mistrust of the mainland that Hong Kongers have obligingly contained since the handover but which is now erupting, with all the predictable urgency of long-suppressed and unresolved emotion. Even those unopposed to the Article 23 bill—such as Shiu Sin-por, director of right-wing think tank One Country Two Systems Research Institute—are prepared to concede this. "The opposition to Article 23 is a manifestation of fundamental differences between Hong Kong and China," he says. "The really fundamental difference is a lack of trust of the communists in Beijing, and that's something no one can change. If you don't trust the central government, then this type of proposal, no matter how good, means you won't feel safe."
Though Tung on Saturday announced half-hearted concessions—scrapping provisions relating to arbitrary police powers to enter homes and requiring that organizations banned in the mainland be likewise curtailed in Hong Kong, and adding a safeguard that would protect media that publish "sensitive" information so long as publication is in the public interest—he has failed to address the crisis of confidence in his government. In mishandling the Article 23 bill since it was introduced, the Tung Administration has inadvertently raised the stakes so that protestors now want more than amendments and blandishments. They want real, tangible evidence of openness and, eventually, universal suffrage. "Now I'm definitely going to march to Legco on July 9," says Ricton Cheung, a 41-year-old advertising executive who echoes the sentiments of many Hong Kongers. "The amendments are beside the point, because that's not what the people are requesting."
The concessions themselves may prove a disastrous gambit on Tung's part. It is a political dictum that unrepresentative regimes are at their weakest not when they ignore dissent but when they make belated attempts at conciliation. Tung's concessions do not go far enough to appease the crowds now baying for his head, although making any concessions at all is a de facto admission that he has been guilty of misreading the public mood. Indeed, the reaction to what Tung considers a major effort at rebuilding public trust was swift and uncompromising. Even former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, who retains significant personal popularity in Hong Kong, broke her usual queenly composure. "Both the government and the Legislative Council have demonstrated that they were not responsive to community aspirations," she proclaimed. "I think that the sooner the government allows a proper debate and discussion about the pace of universal suffrage, the better it would be for everybody ... It almost seems as if they're daring the people to take to the streets."
Democratic Party Chairman Yeung Sum said he was pushing for the postponement in order to allow a fresh round of consultations with the public, and had hoped that Tien's Liberal Party, whose eight seats were to be the swing votes in this week's Legco showdown, would also ask for deferral. "We need time to heal the pain between the government and the people," says Yeung, "so the only thing is to defer." Wish granted. As Liberal Party legislator Miriam Lau confirmed, "our Party stance right now is that we prefer deferment, to allow more time for the community to discuss this."
Although deferment of or amendments to the bill may satisfy some conservative elements reluctantly drawn into last week's protests, they are not expected to diminish the democracy movement's broad base of support. Once broken, trust is not easily won again, least of all by perfunctory concessions. Even archconservative David Chu of the Hong Kong Progressive Alliance was heard on a radio talk show saying that "today, even if the government wanted to pass a free-lunch bill they would have difficulty." And although a deferment will allow both government and protestors to cool off, if it is not followed by a sincere and open public consultation, deeper social unrest is all but guaranteed.
China's leadership cannot be pleased with a democracy movement suddenly flowering in soil that had long been considered arid. Developments last week showed Beijing bigwigs distancing themselves from Tung's predicament. Three days before his resignation from the cabinet, Liberal Party chief Tien said that Liao Hui, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, had indicated to him that China was OK with postponing the vote and that it wasn't concerned about the details of the law so long as it was eventually enacted. Most notably, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was in the territory, he seemed to go out of his way to appear as the anti-Tung. He went on impromptu walkabouts (hugely popular with the public), rocked in his arms the baby of a mother who perished in the sars epidemic and generally conveyed the impression that he cared about Hong Kong. Not once, it was widely noted, did he say that Tung was doing a good job—usually a pro forma statement from visiting Chinese leaders. Says Tsang Yok-sing, head of the pro-Beijing Party in Legco, the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, and an adviser to Tung: "The Chief Executive still has the support of the central government—I think."
Even if Tung survives, observers reckon it will become increasingly difficult for his Administration to push through other unpopular measures, such as proposals to raise taxes or cut welfare benefits. "When people don't trust their government, they doubt everything," notes political activist Christine Loh. "So the government can't get anything done and is in continual crisis."
The irony for Hong Kong, and China, may be that such a crisis could end with a rejuvenated, more confident city that is once again viewed internationally as a dynamic center of culture and commerce. Contrary to Beijing's and perhaps Tung's fears, increased freedoms for Hong Kong may mean greater stability in the territory. (For an example of a stable Chinese democracy, see Taiwan.) Multinational corporations and international investors would be reassured that rule of law exists, public opinion matters and due process is observed—in short, that Hong Kong is not just another Chinese city. "Democracy is not a free gift," says the Democrats' Yeung Sum. "We have to fight for it." It's a fight that, if won, could mean Hong Kong's salvation—and future.