Hong Kong Masses No Longer Mute

Demonstration Hong Kong
People Power: Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on July 1, 2003 (Photo: Mike Clarke/AFP-Getty Images).

To understand the furor induced by Hong Kong’s proposed Article 23 legislation and its impact, one has to know the legislation’s background.

On the eve of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, the colony’s British authorities introduced democratic reforms to the territory’s liberal legal system. Beijing was extremely suspicious of Britain’s motives.

When the pro-democracy movement erupted in China in 1989, 1 million people hit the streets in Hong Kong to voice their support. Hong Kong students also took part in the organization of the Tiananmen Square demonstration. This deepened Beijing’s worry that Hong Kong would become a base for opposing China.

China is not willing to see the United Kingdom continue to take advantage of Hong Kong’s freedoms and democratic system or to have any influence on its politics. This is the basic reason behind Beijing’s promoting Article 23 legislation in the Basic Law [a mini-constitution agreed to when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997—WPR].

Around the time of Hong Kong’s hand-over, China finally stepped clear of the predicament of the June 4 massacre [in Tiananmen Square] both politically and economically. Its rulers regained some confidence in governing the nation, thereby reducing the urgency of the push for Article 23 in Hong Kong.

To secure the stability of Hong Kong’s return and make efforts to reverse its diplomatic situation, China has tried to dodge the territory’s democratic forces. For example, it allows exiled pro-democracy activists such as Lu Siqing and Han Dongfang to participate in democracy movements and allows the June 4 candlelight vigil to be held in Victoria Park every year.

But why do the Chinese authorities want to force Article 23 legislation at a time when public rancor in the territory is surging and its economy is in a slump? According to information we have obtained, we believe that this is former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s personal decision.

Jiang’s visit to Hong Kong last year was met with protests by hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners. He reportedly was enraged, and ordered the Hong Kong government to push the legislation in order to provide a legal basis for suppressing similar activities.

A vital regulation in Article 23 stipulates that all the organizations banned in China must also be banned in Hong Kong. This is aimed at the Falun Gong.

The massive turnout at the July 1 demonstration can be attributed to the policy of the democratic faction, which focused the protest on opposing Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Article 23. Opposition against one-party politics was not at issue. Although the outside world estimated the number of participants at 500,000, the actual figure was probably more than 750,000.

Such strong public support has put the central government in an awkward position. The best solution would be to return to its original stance and shelve Article 23. But this would set a precedent for making concessions to the people. And moreover, this would foster Jiang’s discontent with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

The central government is now gathering opinions from all circles in search of a solution. They have heard three complaints—people are dissatisfied with the economy, people are dissatisfied with Tung, and people are dissatisfied with Article 23.

Now China needs to make two policies, which will also be the focus of public attention. One is related to the concessions it should make on Article 23—either making more alterations or delaying the legislation. The other is whether it should forsake Tung. What Beijing will do next is still unknown, which suggests that differences of opinion exist inside the government.

But one thing is certain. This abrupt change in Hong Kong’s politics is a new test of the relations between the Hu-Wen system and the Jiang bloc. We can assume that any future political changes in Hong Kong will influence China’s political development.

Hong Kong’s political development offers us food for thought. I believe the territory’s recent problems prove the impossibility of maintaining the “one country, two systems” principle under China’s totalitarian rule. It is merely the late Deng Xiaoping’s promise that Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years. Without a democratic system, this kind of promise is nothing but pie in the sky.

Under China’s authoritarian rule, even a leader’s personal feelings can change the basic structure of a policy. As long as political democratization has not arrived in China, its rulers’ promises are not dependable. Even political interests cannot provide a guarantee.

The fact that Jiang was able to push for the legislation based on his personal interests serves as an obvious example, since Article 23 does not tally with the Communist Party’s interests and its international image.

I believe that after this furor in Hong Kong, the Chinese people will also see things more clearly. Without a democratic system, China lacks international credibility, and there are ample reasons not to believe Beijing’s promises.

Since the June 4 movement in 1989, democracy movements in China and overseas have died down. Many people have lost confidence in China’s democratization. But the massive demonstration joined by 750,000 Hong Kong residents indicates that we must never underestimate the power of public will in striving for democracy and safeguarding freedom under Beijing’s rule.

Hong Kong has long been viewed as a commercial city without political activity. The bourgeoisie, the leading force in Hong Kong, cares only about its business interests. The number of demonstrators turning out on July 1 surprised the outside world, because we have neglected the Hong Kong people’s suppression since the hand-over.

Hong Kong raises the question of whether people ruled by Beijing are willing to remain silent forever. Before 1988, China was a peaceful and joyful state, where public rancor was far less heated than it is today. But people’s political enthusiasm was kindled seemingly overnight in 1989, a process I personally experienced. Today’s Hong Kong is another example.

We should not be misguided by the facade China displays into believing that its stability will last. Nor should we think that the Chinese people’s passion for democracy has abated. Facts prove that under a totalitarian system public resentment will erupt abruptly. The inactivity of the opposition movements currently in China is only a superficial phenomenon. I believe there will be a breakthrough in China’s democratization within the next five to 10 years.

The author, a student leader during the 1989 pro-democracy movement, spent seven years in prison in China. Currently a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard University, he spent six weeks in Taipei recently as a writer-in-residence at the government’s invitation.