March 3, 2005

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER REGIME CHANGE:

Top Hong Kong Official Is Said to Be Close to Resigning Post (KEITH BRADSHER, March 2, 2005, NY Times)

Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, is preparing to step down after coming under heavy criticism from Beijing and from local residents, two people familiar with the decision said Tuesday and Wednesday. [...]

His resignation is likely to present Beijing with two political novelties: first, a Chinese territory run by a knighted former British civil servant, and then, a multicandidate election.

Under Hong Kong law, Mr. Tung's immediate successor would be Donald Tsang, who had a distinguished record of service during British rule here, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and is famous here for invariably wearing bow ties.

The territory's Basic Law, a mini-constitution drafted mostly by Chinese officials before Britain handed over the territory in 1997, calls for new elections to be held within six months of the resignation of the chief executive.

Accepting Mr. Tung's resignation and holding elections now may make it easier for Beijing to control the process than if he were pressed to complete his second five-year term, which ends June 30, 2007.

According to the Basic Law, 2007 is when China had allowed for the possibility of open elections for chief executive. Before then, the Basic Law calls for an Electoral Committee of 800 prominent people, most of them allies of Beijing, to vote for the next chief executive - or, as happened last election, to choose one candidate by acclamation.

That gradually legislated move toward democracy has been the source of tension between China and demonstrators in Hong Kong.


We await comment from X, who understands all this far better than we, but how long before Mainland Chinese realize what turning out in the street can get you and ask why Taiwan and Hong Kong get to be democracies but not China?

MORE:
X writes:

Name: X
Email Address:
URL:

Comments:

Since this is a topic that is probably relatively little known, please allow me to present some background on Hong Kong and its current tricky relationship with China.

Hong Kong is a tiger being ridden by China's rulers, and they are praying that choosing the right leader for Hong Kong will help them to avoid being eaten by the tiger.

Yes, for China, Hong Kong is a major source of investment and business expertise. And, yes, Beijing, in a political alliance with Hong Kong's big business interests, is trying to reshape the city in its own image.

Things, however, also go the other way. While China is subverting Hong Kong's freedoms, Hong Kong's economic clout, although now slowly declining, is also subverting Beijing's political authority. For instance, while the rest of China's provinces adopted daylight-savings time when the regime decided to do so in the mid-80s, Guangdong province, just north of Hong Kong, did not.

Why? Because Guangdong, which is physically as large as France and today has more than 100 million inhabitants, preferred to be in sync with Hong Kong, which did not have daylight-savings time. For centuries, the cultural heart of Guangdong was its provincial capitol, Guangzhou. Anyone who wanted to be someone in the province learned to speak the version of the Cantonese language spoken in Guangzhou. (Spoken Cantonese, by the way, is as different from Mandarin Chinese as French is from Italian.) Today, the province is overflowing with millions of illegal satellite dishes that are tuned to Hong Kong's television stations, and Guangdong's people, who increasingly look at a chic Hong Kong as the new center of Cantonese culture, are all learning the modern English-influenced Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong. Here, the flow of ideas goes from Hong Kong to Guangdong and from Guangdong to the rest of China, not the other way.

As rulers of 1.4 billion people, why do China's Communists put up with all this from what for them is one single dinky little city? Beijing has always worried about losing political control, and control of booming Guangdong is especially critical, because the province provides some one-third of the central government's annual income. For a regime that has always been paranoid about exercising total political domination, Hong Kong's influence over one of its major territories is surely undesirable. This becomes even worse when Hong Kong's people participate by the hundreds of thousands in political demonstrations that are decidedly not pro-Communist. It was no coincidence that last year, China canceled practically every tourist trip by Chinese citizens from China to Hong Kong while mass demonstrations were taking place there.

Why, then, is Hong Kong being treated by China with kid gloves? There are many answers, but any reasonable answer must include Taiwan. As rich as Hong Kong is, Taiwan is even richer, and it is a global center of technology in ways that Hong Kong is not. Additionally, Taiwan is not just a "renegade province," whose continued existence is an unbearable insult to China's growing ranks of rabid national socialists. It is now also a true political rival, which has developed a form of open government that demonstrates Chinese aren't predestined by culture to be ruled always by strongmen and are perfectly capable of creating a working democracy.

By trying to show that Hong Kong can prosper after political unification with China, Beijing is desperately hoping to persuade Taiwan's 23 million people that they can feel safe to reunite with China, that the formula of "one country, two systems" can work. China is now in a life-or-death race: It is betting that it can hold up the Hong Kong model to entice Taiwan to agree to reunification before Communist rule in China is finally and fatally undermined by both Hong Kong and Taiwan.

This is why China believes it is vital who leads Hong Kong. For Beijing, the man who rules Hong Kong on China's behalf must help China win this race.

On the one hand, Hong Kong's Chief Executive must understand his ultimate loyalty is to Beijing, not to Hong Kong or to democratic principles. Tung Chee-hwa certainly met this criterion. In all his years of running Hong Kong, Tung never failed to show he was Beijing's man. On the other hand, the Chief Executive can't let Hong Kong's economy begin to rot, or else the argument that Taiwan would continue to prosper after reunification would fall apart. Here, Tung's performance wasn't as good in Beijing's eyes. Under his tenture, property prices in Hong Kong plummeted, and the unemployment rate skyrocketed. On the political side, the chief executive is also expected by China to keep things under control. Again, here, Tung's perfomance has been awful in Beijing's eyes, since he was unable to make Hong Kong's democracy movement go away. As a result, even though Beijing doesn't want to see mass pro-democracy demonstrations, it can't afford the political price of sending in the tanks either. If China used force to crush Hong Kong's people, it would lose any chance of peaceful reunification with Taiwan forever.

It is now believed that Donald Tsang will probably replace Tung as the Chief Executive. If this does happen, it will be because Beijing thinks Tsang is both politically loyal and economically competent. Even though Tsang has in the past said he would be willing to defend Hong Kong's economic interests at China's expense, there is no doubt he is loyal and prefers not to challenge the political rules laid down by China. In his own words, "We shall not treat Hong Kong as a testing ground for a political system." Tsang is also perceived by some as being economically able, having seen Hong Kong through Asia's economic crisis during the late 90s as Hong Kong's finance secretary under Tung.

The great problem, though, is that China's rulers don't understand the question of who to choose is almost irrelevant. Although Hong Kong is still free economically, many of its political problems and dilemmas now mirror those of China. In the most fundamental sense, it doesn't matter who leads Hong Kong, just as it doesn't matter who leads China. No matter who you choose to act on the Communist regime's behalf, you can't save a political system that has no future and in fact doesn't deserve to have one. You can only destroy it, and build something better. Let us hope that the Hong Kong tiger will eat its rider sooner rather than later, so that the Chinese people will be able to build something better sooner than later.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 3, 2005 12:47 PM
Comments

Since this is a topic that is probably relatively little known, please allow me to present some background on Hong Kong and its current tricky relationship with China.

Hong Kong is a tiger being ridden by China's rulers, and they are praying that choosing the right leader for Hong Kong will help them to avoid being eaten by the tiger.

Yes, for China, Hong Kong is a major source of investment and business expertise. And, yes, Beijing, in a political alliance with Hong Kong's big business interests, is trying to reshape the city in its own image.

Things, however, also go the other way. While China is subverting Hong Kong's freedoms, Hong Kong's economic clout, although now slowly declining, is also subverting Beijing's political authority. For instance, while the rest of China's provinces adopted daylight-savings time when the regime decided to do so in the mid-80s, Guangdong province, just north of Hong Kong, did not.

Why? Because Guangdong, which is physically as large as France and today has more than 100 million inhabitants, preferred to be in sync with Hong Kong, which did not have daylight-savings time. For centuries, the cultural heart of Guangdong was its provincial capitol, Guangzhou. Anyone who wanted to be someone in the province learned to speak the version of the Cantonese language spoken in Guangzhou. (Spoken Cantonese, by the way, is as different from Mandarin Chinese as French is from Italian.) Today, the province is overflowing with millions of illegal satellite dishes that are tuned to Hong Kong's television stations, and Guangdong's people, who increasingly look at a chic Hong Kong as the new center of Cantonese culture, are all learning the modern English-influenced Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong. Here, the flow of ideas goes from Hong Kong to Guangdong and from Guangdong to the rest of China, not the other way.

As rulers of 1.4 billion people, why do China's Communists put up with all this from what for them is one single dinky little city? Beijing has always worried about losing political control, and control of booming Guangdong is especially critical, because the province provides some one-third of the central government's annual income. For a regime that has always been paranoid about exercising total political domination, Hong Kong's influence over one of its major territories is surely undesirable. This becomes even worse when Hong Kong's people participate by the hundreds of thousands in political demonstrations that are decidedly not pro-Communist. It was no coincidence that last year, China canceled practically every tourist trip by Chinese citizens from China to Hong Kong while mass demonstrations were taking place there.

Why, then, is Hong Kong being treated by China with kid gloves? There are many answers, but any reasonable answer must include Taiwan. As rich as Hong Kong is, Taiwan is even richer, and it is a global center of technology in ways that Hong Kong is not. Additionally, Taiwan is not just a "renegade province," whose continued existence is an unbearable insult to China's growing ranks of rabid national socialists. It is now also a true political rival, which has developed a form of open government that demonstrates Chinese aren't predestined by culture to be ruled always by strongmen and are perfectly capable of creating a working democracy.

By trying to show that Hong Kong can prosper after political unification with China, Beijing is desperately hoping to persuade Taiwan's 23 million people that they can feel safe to reunite with China, that the formula of "one country, two systems" can work. China is now in a life-or-death race: It is betting that it can hold up the Hong Kong model to entice Taiwan to agree to reunification before Communist rule in China is finally and fatally undermined by both Hong Kong and Taiwan.

This is why China believes it is vital who leads Hong Kong. For Beijing, the man who rules Hong Kong on China's behalf must help China win this race.

On the one hand, Hong Kong's Chief Executive must understand his ultimate loyalty is to Beijing, not to Hong Kong or to democratic principles. Tung Chee-hwa certainly met this criterion. In all his years of running Hong Kong, Tung never failed to show he was Beijing's man. On the other hand, the Chief Executive can't let Hong Kong's economy begin to rot, or else the argument that Taiwan would continue to prosper after reunification would fall apart. Here, Tung's performance wasn't as good in Beijing's eyes. Under his tenture, property prices in Hong Kong plummeted, and the unemployment rate skyrocketed. On the political side, the chief executive is also expected by China to keep things under control. Again, here, Tung's perfomance has been awful in Beijing's eyes, since he was unable to make Hong Kong's democracy movement go away. As a result, even though Beijing doesn't want to see mass pro-democracy demonstrations, it can't afford the political price of sending in the tanks either. If China used force to crush Hong Kong's people, it would lose any chance of peaceful reunification with Taiwan forever.

It is now believed that Donald Tsang will probably replace Tung as the Chief Executive. If this does happen, it will be because Beijing thinks Tsang is both politically loyal and economically competent. Even though Tsang has in the past said he would be willing to defend Hong Kong's economic interests at China's expense, there is no doubt he is loyal and prefers not to challenge the political rules laid down by China. In his own words, "We shall not treat Hong Kong as a testing ground for a political system." Tsang is also perceived by some as being economically able, having seen Hong Kong through Asia's economic crisis during the late 90s as Hong Kong's finance secretary under Tung.

The great problem, though, is that China's rulers don't understand the question of who to choose is almost irrelevant. Although Hong Kong is still free economically, many of its political problems and dilemmas now mirror those of China. In the most fundamental sense, it doesn't matter who leads Hong Kong, just as it doesn't matter who leads China. No matter who you choose to act on the Communist regime's behalf, you can't save a political system that has no future and in fact doesn't deserve to have one. You can only destroy it, and build something better. Let us hope that the Hong Kong tiger will eat its rider sooner rather than later, so that the Chinese people will be able to build something better sooner than later.

Posted by: X at March 3, 2005 3:27 AM

X,

Excellent analysis but a few questions.

1. Aren't much of the economic problems in Hong Kong related to the fact that many of its most productive citizens fled to America, Canada and Australia immediately prior to unification, taking their skills and the bulk of their cash with them?

2. Is the local civil justice system deteriorating to the level of the rest of the PRC or is it still maintaining the comparatively high levels of the British Empire?

3. Isn't the importance of democracy, as distinct from the rule of law, overrated in your analysis? After all, there was damn little self-governance under the British till the very end. Of course, the PRC's committment to the rule of law is dubious at best.

4. More than just Taiwan, doesn't the fact that the bulk of the Overseas Chinese community of Southeast Asia, the US, Canada and Australia also is Cantonese and Hong Kong-fixated have significance here? If I were an ethnic Cantonese living in NJ, and my Uncle Charley in Hong Kong tells me that the local Communist mandarin is stealing everything that isn't nailed down, how interested am I in NJ in investing there despite whatever chauvinistic inclinations I might have?

Posted by: Bart at March 3, 2005 7:26 AM

X:

Can I make that a post by you?

Posted by: oj at March 3, 2005 7:31 AM

Bart:

Thanks for the comments. Here're some quick responses to your points.

1. Many of Hong Kong's best and brightests who left before 1997 made sure they received permanent residence status in such countries as Canada and the United States, and then returned to Hong Kong to make money.
2. The civil service is still functioning well, especially when compared with mainland China. But it isn't any social dramatic changes that you should look for. It's the small things that don't get written up in newspapers, such as the almost imperceptible but gradual decline in the general knowledge of English, that can make Hong Kong "just another Chinese city."
3. Of course, under the British, there was damn little self-governance. Before 1997, Hong Kong Chinese were famous for being completely apolitical. But practically everyone also knew first hand or from relatives in China the horrible things that happened there. That's why over a million people demonstrated against Tiananmen, and that was years before 1997. After 1997, you would think Hong Kong Chinese would have had better sense than to participate in pro-democracy movements. Yet, on more than one occasion, they have come out in the hundreds of thousands. In 2003, for example, up to an estimated half million people marched to protest a proposed "anti-subversion" law.
4. It is an interesting phenomenon that living in the safety of the West, many Overseas Chinese are frequently less pro-democratic than Chinese who have stayed in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. For example, a growing number of Chinese-American organizations today celebrate the PRC's National Day (October 1, the founding of the PRC), not the ROC's (October 10, which is celebrated in Taiwan). The siren call of ethnic solidarity with a China that is pereceived to be increasingly strong and that offers lucrative businss opportunities is hard to resist.

Posted by: X at March 3, 2005 7:57 AM

OJ, I guess so. Thanks!

Posted by: X at March 3, 2005 8:05 AM

4. - They're fat and happy and far away, sounds like certain parts of Europe. Romanticism of the homeland.

Was in HK in 1992, We still remember the t-shirts, China out! They were packing up then.

Posted by: Sandy P at March 3, 2005 10:42 AM

OJ, I linked to Rantburg cos they'll eat this stuff up, adds another piece to the puzzle.

Posted by: Sandy P at March 3, 2005 10:46 AM

Thank you, X

Posted by: Peter B at March 3, 2005 12:43 PM

Yes, X, please email me at some point if you'd be interested in posting comments. You're invaluable.

Posted by: oj at March 3, 2005 12:47 PM

It has been a while since I looked at the Basic Law, but I think it may be silent on the question of when elections are held if a new Chief Executive is appointed in the event of a resignation. That is, the PRC could conceivably appoint Tsang to a five-year term, and arguably that would postpose the election six-month window until 2010.

X:

I think your analysis of Guandong is spot on. I was unaware of that fascinating tidbit about the time change. I have traveled by train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, and it is akin to a train ride from San Francisco to San Jose (i.e., notwithstanding the customs check, it feels like part of the same state). And Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, is basically a suburb of Hong Kong (albeit industrial). Shenzhen residents apparently do much of their shopping and all of their race track gambling in Hong Kong. Thus it would not surprise that they consider themselves more Hong Kongese than mainland (FWIW, Shenzhen's population is approximately 4 million).

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at March 3, 2005 1:50 PM
« AN OPPORTUNITY TOO GOOD TO BE MISSED: | Main | SCREAMING KLEAGLES: »