China forfeits high ground


HONG KONG -- From 1842 to 1997, with two exceptions, British governors of Hong Kong avoided democratic reform. In the 20th century they did so believing that China would react badly if they enacted it.

Now China has proved beyond a reasonable doubt how prescient those British governors were to calculate, and be cowardly, in this way. China has reacted badly, squashing Hong Kong hopes of sensible and overdue democratic reform -- even though China has now regained sovereignty over Hong Kong, and to veto democratic reform is against China's self-interest, let alone Hong Kong's.

Ironically, Chinese spokesmen, including Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, once again excoriated Hong Kong's former British rulers for never instituting democracy here, without apparently noticing that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was doing the very thing for which they were criticizing the British, and postponing meaningful democratic changes into the never-never land of the distant future. The same spokesmen insisted on the new Communist Party line that democracy was flourishing as never before in Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty.

The truth is that Hong Kong's intense longing for democratic progress, so that the next chief executive is elected by universal suffrage in 2007, and the 2008 Legislative Council (Legco) is wholly directly elected, has been indefinitely frustrated. The process was basically simple, though at times verbally convoluted.

First, the Chinese government aborted the Hong Kong government's promised consultation with the public on the reforms seemingly promised in the Basic Law, and insisted that a hastily appointed "task force" of three government officials consult Beijing instead.

Then on Feb. 10, as the task force returned from its first visit to the capital, the CCP, through a Xinhua statement, effectively gave notice that it would veto the advent of universal franchise in 2007 and 2008, and that the promised "high degree of autonomy" and "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" were not all that they were assumed to be, while the stress in the "one country, two systems" formula must be on the "one country."

In a way this said it all -- but the CCP wanted to give the appearance of legality, even as it issued its own dictates. Next, came the softening-up process, as the contentious and emotional issue of patriotism was injected into the Hong Kong scene. The "China Whateverist" faction in the Hong Kong elite (whatever China says or does is right) were activated to give vent to their self-interested antidemocratic prejudices. Some of Hong Kong's democrats were assailed as unpatriotic traitors, with China hoping thereby to put them on the defensive.

On April 6, this gave way to the "interpretation" of the Basic Law, as the CCP announced how it would go about formalizing its proposed veto of instituting universal suffrage franchise in 2007 and 2008. It was hardly an "interpretation." The CCP actually awarded itself powers in addition to those described in the Basic Law. It thereby raised the possibility, damaging to the continued rule of law in Hong Kong, that the Basic Law could mean whatever China decided it should mean.

Finally, on April 26 came the actual veto itself. "Legality" required that the CCP, acting through the National People's Congress Standing Committee, issue a verbose decision of 1,141 words, when fewer were required. There would be no move to universal franchise in either 2007 or in 2008. Complex Legco voting rules would continue to serve "executive-led government," under a formula, which means that directly-elected Legco members cannot pass their own bills. There would be no further progress in changing the ratio of directly elected Legco seats representing the people to functional constituencies representing business and professional sectors.

In a nutshell, no worthwhile democratic reform would be permitted. Hong Kong would remain stuck in the colonial era, with the new Chinese colonial power possessing more powers of control than the British colonialists had chosen to exercise. But the Hong Kong government was told it could begin the now meaningless consultation process on reform that had been halted prior to Feb. 10.

It goes without saying that all these developments could easily turn out to be highly damaging to Hong Kong's further development. What often gets lost to view -- both here in Hong Kong and also in a China where there is no freedom of political expression and a tightly-controlled press -- is the fact that all these developments could end up being damaging to China's national interest as well.

Here is the rest of the article