Hong Kong: next elections a test for Beijingby Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
, November 1, 2003
HONG KONG: In an exclusive interview with News Weekly, the leader of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, Martin Lee, said that elections to be held in Hong Kong next year would tell whether China is willing to allow any form of democracy within the country.When China took over control of Hong Kong about five years ago, it promised to preserve Hong Kong's existing political freedoms for 50 years, using the catch-cry, "One country, two systems". Hong Kong is officially a Special Administrative Region of China.
However, early this year, the China-installed administrator of Hong Kong, Tung Chee Hwa, attempted to change Hong Kong's Basic Law (which is effectively its Constitution) in a way which would severely curtail freedom of speech and freedom of association. The amendment was named Article 23 of the Basic Law.Human rights warning
The human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch Asia, which is based in Hong Kong because of the freedoms that exist there, warned that it would have to pull out of Kong Kong if Article 23 was implemented.
However, there was a massive upsurge of opposition within Kong Kong, culminating in a mass rally of over 500,000 people on July 1, protesting against Article 23.
This led some pro-Beijing members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council to withdraw support for Article 23, and two of Tung Chee Hwa's ministers resigned.
Eventually, Mr Tung decided to withdraw Article 23, although Martin Lee believes it may reappear after the elections, which are due to take place next year, if the pro-Beijing parties secure a majority in the Legislative Council.
The situation is complicated by a power struggle within the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The new President of China, Hu Jintao, is clearly at odds with the powerful former President, Jiang Zemin, who retains his key position as head of China's military forces.
Early in October, Hu Jintao issed a strong call for the Chinese Communist Party Plenum, the supreme governing body, to make the one-party state more responsive to public opinion.
These sentiments were publicly expressed, and were widely discussed in the Chinese media, as was another proposal by Mr Hu to amend the Chinese Constitution.
However, at the end of the session, a communique issued effectively rejected this proposal.
It said that the Constitution should be adjusted to reflect "major theoretical standpoints and major principles and policies determined by the 16th Party Congress", when Jiang Zemin was still firmly in control.
However, Mr Hu is clearly determined to establish his own independent position in China and the world. This was shown when he led public applause for China's first astronaut, while Jiang Zemin, who had backed the project for many years, was nowhere to be seen.
Hu Jintao's prominent role is also designed to emphasise that he is a technocrat, rather than an ideologue, in the eyes of the world. For the past 10 years, China has been vigorously attempting to establish its credentials as a good international citizen. This is shown in its bid for membership of the World Trade Organisation, its successful bid to host the Olympic Games in 2008, and its role in curbing the SARS virus earlier this year.
China sees this as essential to maintaining the momentum of its spectacular economic performance, which has outstripped every other country over the past ten years.
An important part of this is the export of Chinese manufactured goods to the world.
Hong Kong plays an important part in this process, because it provides a window through which the West can reach China. Billions of dollars of Chinese manufactures reach the West through Hong Kong, and billions of dollars of Western investment in China is funnelled through Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is an attractive venue for Western investors because of the transparency of its banking system, and the effective operation of its legal system. Neither of these attributes is present in China.
Hence Hong Kong is a very important element in China's effort to make itself an accepted international power.
Martin Lee said that Mr Hu's recent visit to Australia was undoubtedly designed to confirm his role as an international statesman. However, the new Chinese leadership's international credentials would depend on its willingness to maintain the freedoms which the people of Hong Kong have fought to maintain over recent years.
Martin Lee said that if existing freedoms are maintained in Hong Kong, there is a real possibility that Hong Kong will provide a model which could ultimately be applied for the democratisation of China itself.