CHINA: Beijing-Hong Kong Tensions

February 4, 2005

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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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What’s the source of current tensions between Beijing and democracy activists in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong democracy advocates have been lobbying Beijing to allow greater political freedom, in line with promises China made when it took control of Hong Kong in 1997 after more than 150 years of British colonial rule. Chinese officials have resisted the appeals and instead have asserted even greater control over Hong Kong’s political system. The activists hoped a rally marking the seventh anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover on July 1 would pressure Beijing to yield more rights, but most experts say there is little chance of that happening.

What steps has China taken to expand its control?

  • In the last year, it has created a Beijing-based task force of top Communist Party members and given it final policymaking authority over Hong Kong, as well as a new office in Hong Kong authorized to monitor issues related to the central government and Hong Kong. Control over issues ranging from residency rights to political reform has shifted from Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s government to newly created offices staffed by mainland loyalists. Beijing also launched a propaganda campaign in January that depicted agitation for democracy in Hong Kong as misguided and unpatriotic.
  • To pro-democracy advocates, the biggest blow came in April. They had been pushing for the right to vote in the 2007 chief executive election and for full voter participation in the 2008 Legislative Council elections. On April 26, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the decision-making body of China’s national legislature, ruled out universal suffrage for both. The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, makes direct election of the chief executive an eventual goal but does not set a date for achieving it. It also leaves open the possibility of expanding its provisions that limit voter participation in council elections. The April 26 ruling appeared to strengthen Beijing’s control over any future proposals to expand voting rights in Hong Kong.
  • Tensions rose in May, when three Hong Kong radio commentators known for their pro-democracy views abruptly resigned, claiming harassment and threats from Beijing. "All the signals put forward have been negative for democracy and the way Hong Kong is going to develop," says Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

What do democracy advocates want?

Direct election of the chief executive in 2007 and the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s governing body, in 2008. Polls show a majority of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents support universal suffrage.

Some experts stress that while Beijing authorities are approaching reform cautiously, they are not completely against it. "They’re not saying never, they’re just saying not right now," says Elizabeth C. Economy.

How are those positions currently filled?

An 800-member group controlled by Beijing selects the chief executive. In Legislative Council elections scheduled for September 12, Hong Kong voters will directly elect half of the 60 members of the council; the other half will be chosen by "functional constituencies"--professional associations, including lawyers and businessmen--that tend to be conservative and pro-Beijing. The two-tiered system of voting is set out in the Basic Law.

Why is China resisting pro-democracy efforts?

Experts say the Chinese government is focused on maintaining political control even as economic reforms bring prosperity--and new freedom to travel--to millions of mainland Chinese. "It’s clear that Beijing is worried that if they had direct elections in Hong Kong, the anti-Beijing people would win," Segal says. China permits limited elections at the village level. However, its communist leadership sees universal suffrage as "radical political reform" that would set a destabilizing precedent, says Peng Yuen, a visiting fellow and Asia expert at The Brookings Institution. "Other parts of China could see Hong Kong and think, ’If we have large demonstrations, we can have democracy too,’" says Veron Hung, an Asian law and politics expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "China sees the threat posed by Hong Kong to domestic politics as imminent, and [something] that needs to be dealt with."

How is Hong Kong governed?

Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China after negotiating the Basic Law, which guarantees "a high degree of autonomy" to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for 50 years and enshrines the "one country, two systems" idea.

What is "one country, two systems?"

It is the notion that traditionally capitalistic Hong Kong belongs to China, a country with a communist leadership and a socialist economy. Peng says some misinterpret the phrase. "The pro-democracy advocates think it means two states," he says. "It doesn’t. It means that each country has its own system--socialism for China and capitalism for Hong Kong--but not necessarily total freedom."

What is the Basic Law?

The Basic Law was negotiated by Britain and China in preparation for the 1997 handover. It claims Hong Kong as "an inalienable part" of the People’s Republic of China, but gives Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and legislative and judicial rights not shared by mainland Chinese. These include the right of Hong Kong courts to have the final say over legal matters in the territory, the island’s right to continue having a capitalist economic system, and the rights of Hong Kong residents to free speech, free assembly, and protection from unlawful detention. Private property rights, limited voting rights, and human rights for citizens are also protected in the Basic Law, among other "fundamental rights and freedoms." Under the Basic Law, Beijing controls Hong Kong’s defense and foreign affairs, and the Hong Kong government has control over only external issues relating to trade. For example, Hong Kong on its own is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Hong Kong joined the WTO January 1, 1995, nearly seven years before China, which joined December 11, 2001.

How can the Basic Law be amended?

By a process of consultation that ends with the National People’s Congress. Article 159 of the Basic Law says, "The power of amendment of this Law shall be vested in the National People’s Congress." Other groups can offer amendments to the law--after winning approval from a two-thirds majority of regional deputies, two-thirds of the Legislative Council, and the Hong Kong chief executive--but the ultimate decision is with the Standing Committee. "Basically, what this decision [the April 26 ruling by the Standing Committee] did was change the order [of amending the Basic Law]," Segal says. "It said reform cannot be initiated except by the Standing Committee."

Who has the right to interpret the Basic Law?

China. The Basic Law’s Article 158 says, "The power of interpretation of this Law shall be vested in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress." Chinese officials said their April 26 ruling limiting the right of interpretation to Beijing was not a clampdown but merely a clarification of the law in accordance with their rights in Article 158.

Does China reject all political reform?

Not necessarily. Some experts stress that while Beijing authorities are approaching reform cautiously, they are not completely against it. "They’re not saying never, they’re just saying not right now," says Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr senior fellow and director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

How much political influence does Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement have?

Some experts say it is a potent political force, while others claim the movement’s impact has been limited. "It’s significant in that it attracted world attention to the fact that the Hong Kong public was more interested and aware [of politics] than people gave it credit for," Economy says. But, she adds, "there have been no gains [in democracy] as a result of the democracy movement in Hong Kong."

Have democracy advocates been able to mobilize?

The July 1 march in Hong Kong drew some 530,000 people, who protested the April 26 decision and demanded democracy in stronger terms than had been used before, according to Hong Kong news reports. A year earlier, 500,000 joined the anniversary rally in Hong Kong. A demonstration on New Year’s Day 2004 attracted 100,000, and 80,000 participated in this year’s annual June 4 candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Are the Hong Kong democracy issues linked to events in Taiwan?

China’s stance on democracy in Hong Kong, experts say, is colored by the March re-election of pro-independence president Chen Shui-Bian of Taiwan. The election was bitterly contested, dividing the country almost exactly in half between supporters of Chen and the pro-Beijing Kuomintang candidate Lien Chan. Experts say that by asserting its control over Hong Kong so strongly, China is jeopardizing its standing in Taiwan, a democratic island with which China seeks eventual reunification. "China’s sending signals that Taiwan’s democracy will be threatened if [it becomes] part of China," Segal says. Hung agrees. "If the Chinese government is really serious about peaceful reunification with Taiwan, it should have handled Hong Kong better, she says.

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