Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 9 News List

China's Hong Kong strategy risks backlash

Beijing has yet to learn that threats and intimidation provoke challenges from the very people they are intended to cow


Christine Mak never cared much for politics in money-mad Hong Kong. At least, not until China's communist government decided to warn Hong Kong people that pressing too hard for democracy was unpatriotic.

Mak has become increasingly irritated with Beijing and Hong Kong's pro-China politicians since they launched a strident campaign to douse demands for more voting rights.

"We are not dogs. Just because you throw us some biscuits, it does not mean we will eat and lick your boots," said Mak, a fund manager in her 30s.

Now she intends to vote for a democrat in Hong Kong's legislative elections in September.

In the latest salvo in the war of words over democracy in Hong Kong, China's official media and Beijing's supporters in the city have attacked pro-democracy legislators, some by name, as unfit to be trusted with political power and unpatriotic.

They have also reminded Hong Kong of the economic favors Beijing has bestowed on it since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and warned that the city would suffer if unsuitable individuals were voted in.

But there are fears the row, which has included personal attacks on pro-democracy politicians, could trigger more public anger which could in turn force an even stronger response from China's leaders.

"We are not afraid, we want democracy. The harsher Beijing is, the more we will demand," said office worker Daniel Wong.

The danger for Hong Kong is that the escalating confrontation rattles confidence in one of the world's main financial centers.

"If this situation prolongs, it will not be good. It could lead to large demonstrations and that may provoke an even stronger reaction from Beijing," said a money market dealer.

The big question for China is how many voters think like Mak?

Landslide for democrats?

Beijing's reprimands and warnings stem from a simple fear: that the leaders chosen by Hong Kong people will challenge its power.

"It is most worried that those elected will challenge its authority, support dissidents on the mainland, and Taiwan independence," said pollster and politics lecturer Timothy Wong of Hong Kong's Chinese University.

"Beijing wants Hong Kong people to set its mind at ease and promise not to deviate from these important principles before it will even talk about political reforms."

But the strategy is not working, if polls are to be believed. A survey of 1,237 people late last month by the independent Ming Pao newspaper showed 52 percent would vote for democracy candidates, while 25 percent would back pro-China parties.

A third of those polled said their impression of the central government had been damaged by the recent rhetoric from Beijing.

"If [Hong Kong] votes tomorrow, the democrats will have a landslide victory," Wong said.

If the democrats secure more than half of the 60 legislative seats, they will wield enough power for the first time to veto government policies and that could bring the China-backed administration to its knees.

Recession, protests

Like many others in the former British colony, Mak embraced Chinese rule and the economic perks that Beijing lavished on the city after the 1997 handover when it became embroiled in one economic recession after another.

But protests last year highlighted deep discontent with the China-backed administration, whose policies have been blamed for the city's financial troubles.

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