Tue, Jan 01, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Hong Kong's long wait continues

The news on Saturday that Hong Kongers may be allowed to directly elect their chief executive by 2017 and lawmakers by 2020 has been greeted as a sign that Beijing would live up to the commitment it has made to allow the territory universal suffrage.

But while some celebrated, others cried foul -- and justifiably so.

The key word is "may," which means that the decision -- if we can call it that -- is anything but a promise. Rather, it leaves the door wide open for Beijing to renege on that statement, which it could do by citing threats to Hong Kong's social stability or to its economic health and any number of reasons in between.

The last thing Beijing wants is to open the Pandora's box of democracy, as yielding in Hong Kong would surely lead to demands from other provinces that, left unchecked, could spread across the country. Beijing is terrified of democracy because it knows that it is the one tool, short of civil war, that can threaten its hold on power.

The remark on Saturday, with Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) waxing triumphantly, was probably meant to appease pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong, whose position was bolstered by former top official Anson Chan's (陳方安生) win in the legislative elections last month. This is the upside: Give democrats a little space, wiggle a carrot and hope that this calms the masses. But the downside is that the stick is near, always at the ready.

It would be pure foolishness to take Beijing's declaration at face value, which, sadly, is what many in the international community will likely do. This is yet another sign, we can hear them saying, that Beijing is becoming more "normal" and playing by rules befitting a state that is integrating itself in the global scheme of things.

One need only scratch the surface of Beijing's promises, however, to find that they cannot be relied on. The accelerating pace of arrests of Chinese dissidents in the run-up to the Olympics -- now only eight months away -- should be enough to remind the gullible that Beijing uses promises more for short-term troubleshooting than for framing binding commitments.

The vow China made to ensure media freedoms in its bid for the Beijing Olympics, for example, was utilitarian and insincere. Beijing won the Games it desperately wanted and, once this was achieved, things returned to normal -- including no one bothering to conceal the broken promises.

All of which is enough to make Hong Kongers skeptical. If Beijing so easily breaks its promises to the international community, what prevents it from doing so within its borders?

But China has time on its side. And as 2017 approaches, the rules of the game will change. Arguments for delays and further delays will pile up, as will demands for patience. The mere five-year delay will suddenly find itself lengthening, time will be bought and those who criticize Beijing will be portrayed once more as impatient and irresponsible troublemakers.

Democracy will remain just too dangerous a gift for the Chinese government to bestow upon its people.

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