HONG KONG: by Martin SheehanNews Weekly
Has democracy a future in Hong Kong?
, March 24, 2001
After three-and-a half-years of Chinese rule, Hong Kong seems little changed by the experience at first glance. Despite the economic downturn of a few years ago, Hong Kong remains one of the economic dynamos of the region as well as a bastion of free enterprise and civil liberties, on the edge of the last great totalitarian state in the world.
Many fear, however, that the freedoms and liberties Hong Kong has enjoyed in the past are being slowly eroded, from those within and without who wish to align Hong Kong more closely with the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.
In an ominous move in January, one of Hong Kong's staunchest defenders of civil liberties and freedom of speech, Mrs Anson Chan, announced her intention to resign in April. With the post of Chief Secretary, Mrs Chan was the deputy leader to Chief Executive, Tung Che Hwa.
According to some commentators, however, Chan's resignation may only be a feint. She may be planning to challenge the leadership of Mr Tung, whose five year term in office ends soon. She will have to win over the committee of 800 of Hong Kong's leading residents, however, whose job it is to choose the Chief Executive.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that Mrs Chan has an approval rating amongst the Hong Kong people of around 60 to 70 per cent, while Mr Tung's approval rating is more like 30 per cent.
The equally popular Sir Donald Tsang, formerly Hong Kong's Financial Secretary, is to replace Mrs Chan, who is leaving 18 months before her term expires. Sir Donald has been noted for his pro-Beijing sentiments in the past. He has promised to uphold civil liberties and the rule of law, but has made it clear that he is no carbon copy of Mrs Chan.
Taking over the reins of the Financial Secretary's position is Antony Leung, formerly the leader of the pro-Beijing faction of Hong Kong's students.
At a time when pro-Chinese sentiments were unpopular amongst Hong Kong people (during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s) Leung led a delegation of Hong Kong students to Beijing in the early 1970s.
Since that time he has become part of Hong Kong's business and financial elite, heading JP Morgan Chase's Asian operation.
Chan's resignation also comes at a time when increasing pressure is coming from Beijing to curb the growth of the Falun Gong sect within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). Beijing has accused Falun Gong of attempting to turn Hong Kong into an "anti-Chinese base", despite the fact that the spiritual movement has only 400 registered members in the territory.
The movement has, however, used the freedom found in Hong Kong to raise awareness of the plight of Falun Gong detainees on the mainland and to proselytise for new members. Last year the movement held an international conference, drawing Falun Gong followers and supporters from all over the world.
A member of Hong Kong's Executive Council, Nellie Fong, has called for new laws to combat the growth of Falun Gong in the territory.
In this she has the backing of Hong Kong's constitution, the so-called Basic Law, which prohibits treasonable and seditious acts against China.
As the SAR is now part of China, Ms Fong and others have argued that Falun Gong should be outlawed, in line with measures taken by Beijing to suppress the movement on the mainland.
According to many, however, this is simply another instance in which Hong Kong's autonomy, supposedly guaranteed by the Basic Law for 50 years following the handover, is being undermined by pro-Beijing elements.
This is certainly the belief of Jimmy Lai, who until recently was one of Hong Kong's leading democratic dissidents. Editor of the scurrilous and gossipy paper, Apple Daily, which often lampooned the Beijing leadership, Lai has moved his abode and much of his business operation to Taiwan.
Arriving in Hong Kong in 1960, a penniless refugee from communism on the mainland, Lai went on to become one of the former colonies' most flamboyant and wealthy entrepreneurs. Lai believes that democracy in Hong Kong is finished, hence the move to Taiwan. While maintaining his interest in Apple Daily and his other Hong Kong businesses, Lai hopes to break into the publishing world in Taipei.
According to Lai, "Anson's departure represents the erosion of the last vestige of British democracy [in Hong Kong]."