June 05, 2020
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Island Drifting

Will Beijing abide by its "one country, two systems" pledge?

Island Drifting

AS the Chinese indulged in an unprecedented celebration frenzy after the handover of Hong Kong, satellite-transmitted images of a decked out Tiananmen Square provoked visions of another day seven years ago. And probably no one dwelled on it more than Chinese dissident Han Dong Fang as he broadcast his pro-democracy message to the mainland via Radio Free Asia just an hour after the midnight handover ceremonies.

A trade unionist made famous by the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations and the 22 months he subsequently spent in jail, the high-profile, 34-year-old labour activist was later released on medical amnesty after contracting tuberculosis in jail. To be sure, little has changed for Han, who is now a Hong Kong resident, in the few days since the handover; but as with 6.3 million other Hong Kongers, there is a surreal sense of uncertainty over what changes the new masters in Beijing will effect. Certainly, there are no immediate signals and Han concedes: "There will be no changes for a time. I can only wait and see."

 However, there is no dearth of doomsters writing an epitaph for the Hong Kong success story. But Beijing may yet abide by the late Deng Xiaoping's promise of "one country, two systems". Hong Kong has been granted rights and privileges which would be unimaginable elsewhere in China. So much so that as per the Basic Law, which is essentially Hong Kong's constitution after the handover, the 'special administrative region' will not be subject to Chinese law and will have no financial obligations to the 'motherland'.

Besides, Hong Kongers will enjoy a large measure of individual freedom, even in matters of speech and religion, the denial of which resulted in their forefathers fleeing the mainland. More importantly, many democratic institutions, including a court of justice and a relatively free press, remain firmly in place—as of now.

But the democratically elected Legislative Council has been replaced by Beijing's handpicked provisional legislature, which has no representation from the popular Democratic Party. Laws of limitation have also been passed with the induction of the new leader and sovereigns. Among these limitations on the grounds of public order and "national security" are the curtailing of press freedom and the right to demonstrate. And so, while the leader of the Democratic Party, Martin Lee, was given a platform on the balcony of the Legislative Council building to oppose the new government and agitate for broader freedoms, his right to continue doing so is, as he himself was, up in the air.

The Beijing-appointed chief executive, Tung Cheehwa, made it clear in his speech marking the handover that the freedoms were about to be redefined in Chinese terms to privilege broader collective interests over individual ones. "We value plurality," he said, "but discourage open confrontation; we strive for liberty, but not at the expense of the rule of law; we respect minority views, but are mindful of wider interests; we protect individual rights, but also shoulder collective responsibility."

Basically, China's commitment to the "one country, two systems" hinges on its appreciation of Hong Kong's economic utility. More than half the foreign direct investment into China comes through Hong Kong. And then there is the direct Chinese investment in Hong Kong, with most state-owned companies raising capital on the territory's booming stockmarket. Plus, with visions of economic superpowerhood, there is no gainsaying that China would like to study the Hong Kong miracle in an effort to duplicate it on the mainland. All of which requires that Beijing does nothing untoward to jeopardise the island's financial stability.

Moreover, China has ambitions of extending the "one country, two systems" concept to Taiwan. Beijing would no doubt like to hold up a happy Hong Kong experience to press its case.

The risk would come if Beijing perceived political activity on the island as a threat to the Communist Party's hold over the mainland. Says Han: "I know their way of doing things, I know the system. They are afraid that demonstrations in Hong Kong could spread (to the mainland) and influence society there." These apprehensions are in large part due to the Tiananmen Square massacre and in coming years Beijing is likely to find itself making a series of assurances to live that down.

For Han personally, the handover makes for an irony of sorts. Wanting to resume his activities on behalf of labour unions and democracy, he has tried to return to China, only to be exiled again. Now, with the handover behind him and Chinese sovereignty again taking root on the steep shores of Hong Kong, Han Dong Fang remarks easily that China came to him. "I feel like I won." Well.

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