April 10th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Economic underclass behind marriage and fertility decline

EDITORIAL: Uncommunicative patients - a call on our compassion

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Latham Iraq gaffe signals the honeymoon is over

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The next Four Corners? / Granada

SOCIETY: Who benefits from drugs?

AGRICULTURE: Farmers rallying to fight for industries

ECONOMY: Australia's foreign debt set to grow

The Passion (letter)

Sugar prices (letter)

Tobacco and pharmaceuticals (letter)

Ageing population (letter)

ETHICS: The ethical responsibility of a Christian politician

ECONOMY: US-Australia Free trade agreement and the national interest

TAIWAN ELECTION: Saved by commonsense

PAKISTAN: Inside Pakistan's nuclear weapons program

HONG KONG: Poll battle looms over democratic reforms

BOOKS: Benign or Imperial? Reflections on American Hegemony, by Owen Harries

FILM REVIEW: The Last Samurai

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Poll battle looms over democratic reforms

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, April 10, 2004
China's commitment to permit a democratic system to exist in Hong Kong will be put to the test in elections due to be held in Hong Kong next September.

Under the terms of an agreement between Britain and China in 1990, Britain agreed to hand the colony back to China, on condition that the Communist regime respected the economic and political freedoms which exist in Hong Kong, and allow an increasing level of democratic control for the people of Hong Kong.

These were guaranteed under Hong Kong's Basic Law - in effect its constitution - which protected the political freedoms of Hong Kong's six million people. China also benefits from this agreement.

The Basic Law has enabled the continuation of freedom of speech and association in Hong Kong, the preservation of an independent legal system, and a free-wheeling economy which has made it an ideal transit-point for outsiders (including businesses from the West, Taiwan and Singapore, for example) to do business on the mainland.

This has helped fuel China's rapid economic growth.

It also facilitated China's entry into the World Trade Organisation, and possibly assisted it to secure the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, powerful forces within the Chinese Communist Party associated with former President Jiang Xemin, want gradually to constrict political freedom in Hong Kong, in effect abolishing its status guaranteed under the Basic Law.

Last year, Beijing - under its appointed Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Chee Tung-hwa - tried to force through Hong Kong's Legislative Council an amendment to the Basic Law which would have severely restricted freedom of association in Hong Kong.

The Chief Executive had the numbers to push through the plan, but was forced to back down after more than 500,000 people took to the streets of Hong Kong last July in peaceful protest.

Now the focus has turned to the 2004 Legislative Council elections, because pro-democracy leaders have called for the implementation of direct elections for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2008, as envisaged by the Basic Law, and implementation of universal suffrage.

Beijing has strongly criticised the proposals. Leaders of China's National People's Congress declared that China had control over Hong Kong's electoral reforms "from beginning to end". One told the Hong Kong Morning Post that under the Basic Law, Beijing had the power to declare a state of emergency "in the event of turmoil", although there is not the slightest evidence that this could possibly occur.

However, a state of emergency would enable the elections to be postponed or cancelled.

Another Chinese leader said, "Forget about universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008. According to the Basic Law, universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008 is just not possible. The so-called pro-democracy camp, those law-makers, they just keep making demands after the July 1 [2003] march." (Sunday Morning Post, March 13, 2004)

Beijing's supporters in Hong Kong chimed in to attack Hong Kong's pro-democracy leaders. A group of Hong Kong delegates to the Chinese Communist Party's People's Political Consultative Conference denounced a recent visit to Washington by pro-democracy leader, Martin Lee.

They described Mr Lee's evidence to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he called for the implementation of universal suffrage and direct election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive, as "a lie". The Vice-Minister of Commerce described Mr Lee as "a traitor". (South China Morning Post, March 16, 2004)

Mr Lee strongly rejected the criticism, and said he would continue to speak out.

Separately, a seminar was conducted by Hong Kong's One Country Two Systems Research Institute, at which invited speakers (but not pro-democracy advocates) said that there was no prospect of universal suffrage or direct elections of the Chief Executive. As if to emphasise the point, the Hong Kong Chief Executive attended the seminar.

The threat this represents to the future of Hong Kong was summed up by a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator, Frank Ching. He wrote:

"Officials of the central government continue to declare that all power is in their hands, and that universal suffrage for Hong Kong is out of the question in the next few years.

"Unfortunately, by doing so, they are seriously undermining another of their claims - that China is no longer a country ruled by man but by law."

The issue is not just one affecting Hong Kong. The US Government has recently strongly criticised China's stand on human rights, and Australia, as a major trading partner of China's, also has a stake in ensuring that China moves in the direction of greater freedom.

The Chinese Government has shown it is sensitive to foreign criticism.

In the interests of the six million people in Hong Kong, and the future direction of China itself, it is important that Australia voice its concerns at the direction which Beijing wants to take in Hong Kong.

Peter Westmore

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