Tue, Jul 22, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Beijing fears democracy in south

DISCONTENT Authorities fear the recent street demonstrations in Hong Kong could trigger bolder action by the many discontented groups in China


Hong Kong and adjacent Guangdong Province, both centers of Cantonese culture and commerce, are tightly bonded, in sickness and in health.

Hong Kong money has powered Guangdong's robust economic growth since the early 1980s. Shortly after SARS emerged in Guangdong late last year, it surged into Hong Kong as seamlessly as the 40,000 tourists and businesspeople who pass daily through Lowu, the world's busiest border crossing.

So it is with an extra measure of concern that the Chinese authorities are monitoring another possible contagion, the popular discontent that has toppled two senior Hong Kong officials and upset the carefully laid legislative plans of Beijing's handpicked governor in Hong Kong.

The big fear among Chinese officials is that Hong Kong's peaceful and at least partly effective street demonstrations, which involved 500,000 people at their peak earlier this month, could prod bolder action by China's many discontented groups. Farmers burdened by heavy taxation, urban residents evicted from their homes to make way for real estate developers, and laid-off workers in rust-belt industries regularly stage angry demonstrations around China, though rarely with much coordination.

Hong Kong's protests were the largest and most organized on Chinese soil since the ill-fated democracy movement of 1989 in Beijing, which prompted a political crisis and ended in bloodshed. Even after presiding over a decade of fast economic growth and integration with the outside world, China's authoritarian government would almost certainly face a severe test of legitimacy if mainlanders mounted protests on such a scale.

In Guangzhou, Guangdong's provincial capital and one of China's wealthiest cities, people take seriously their reputation as gourmets and dealmakers. Politics is often dismissed as someone else's problem. Yet Hong Kong's stirrings have resonated deeply.

"Hong Kong has become the symbol of human rights and democracy for us," said Lian Jie, a 24-year-old office supplies salesman.

"There is no place in China where you could stop traffic or stop ordinary business activity the way people did there. It shows that we don't really enjoy human rights," he said.

Like millions of people in Guangdong, Lian watches Hong Kong television every night, getting uncensored updates on the crisis. In contrast, most people farther removed from the airwaves of southern China get almost no news about developments in Hong Kong, which the state-controlled news media has almost entirely suppressed.

But with relatively open access to information about Hong Kong here, few people hesitate to discuss their views about what is happening across the border. Even teenagers in Guangdong are familiar with the basics of the national security legislation that Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) was trying to ram through a reluctant local legislature until popular unrest made him back off.

Hong Kong's protests have been a largely middle-class affair, attracting thousands who worry about ineffective leadership and a slumping economy, as well as political rights. Joblessness has hit a record 8.6 percent , and property values have plunged by two-thirds since the transfer to Chinese rule.

Guangdong is at a different stage of development. Economic growth has been unexpectedly robust despite the SARS epidemic. A middle class is just beginning to form, but society is still fragmented between urban residents and migrant workers, people employed in the private sector and the state sector, the political elite and the disenfranchised masses. The authorities suppress any organization that they worry could someday challenge the Communist Party.

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