Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Hong Kong's threat to China's rulers

By Shaw Sin-ming

Last month's massive demonstrations in Hong Kong, when over half a million residents poured into the streets in protest against the government of Chief Execu-tive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), continues to echo. Never in Hong Kong's history has popular opposition -- uniting investment bankers, street hawkers, off-duty civil servants and artists, among others -- been so loud. China's communist rulers are dithering about how to respond.

One objective of the demonstrators was to voice their desire to select Hong Kong's future leaders through universal suffrage. Today, 800 electors handpicked by the Chinese government -- who mostly represent big business -- choose Hong Kong's chief executive.

The unpopularity of Hong Kong's incompetent and sycophantic chief executive, chosen by China for a second five-year term that will only end in 2007, creates a grave dilemma for Beijing's rulers. Before last month's protests, they hoped that Hong Kong would provide so attractive an example of the idea of "one country, two systems" that Taiwan would be lured into accepting the sovereignty of the government in Beijing. Now Taiwan's leaders point to Hong Kong as a failed model of a flawed concept.

Indeed, Tung's anticipatory subservience to the real or imagined wishes of China's rulers exposed the congenital flaw in the political architecture of uniting a liberal society with a dictatorship. That flaw infects the heart of the "one country, two systems" notion: the idea that genuine autonomy can exist in a country whose supreme leaders do not believe in rule by consent.

Now China's rulers find themselves trapped in a bind. If they back Tung unconditionally for the rest of his term, they can look forward to the collapse of their long-term strategy to reabsorb Taiwan, for the alternative to peaceful unification with Taiwan is coercion.

But any resort to coercion increases the likelihood of military confrontation with the US, Taiwan's protector. In this context, the steady build-up of China's short to medium-range missile capability is a cause for alarm, such missiles being the principle threat against Taiwan. As the US Defense Department's Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China recently put it, "The primary driving force for China's military modernization is Beijing's perceived need to prepare credible military options in any potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait."

Such a nightmare scenario isn't at all likely in Hong Kong, but a steady rot of Hong Kong's vitality is. For if the frustrations of ordinary Hong Kong citizens are allowed to fester without a genuine commitment by China to allow for universal suffrage by 2007, a far more serious eruption of social and political unrest beckons.

Such frustrations are growing. Unemployment now stands at 9 percent -- unimaginable before the handover in 1997, when both Tung and China promised that Hong Kong would do even better under Chinese sovereignty than under British rule. In fact, many observers believe that Hong Kong's real rate of joblessness is much higher, and fear that the trend is not encouraging.

China's leaders, and their handpicked servants in Hong Kong may still believe that Tung's popularity will revive if and when the economy does. So they comfort themselves with the thought that demands for democratization reflect Hong Kong's economic woes, nothing more.

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