As China's dissident enclave, Hong Kong tests Beijing

This week, a key Chinese newspaper condemned democrats for co-opting recent Hong Kong protests.

When James To's mother was persecuted by Mao Zedong's soldiers, his father swam to Hong Kong to establish a new family home. For Mr. To, a youthful and bespectacled Hong Kong legislator, the story is burned deeply in family memory, and adds to the collective identity of Hong Kong as a place of escape, transit, and refuge for people across Asia.

That identity, and the strong East-meets-West contrasts that still exist between an open Hong Kong and an opening China, has been put to the test in recent weeks over a "national security bill" that protesters feel could threaten the civil liberties of the commercial Asian hub.

"Hong Kong is a place where people have always thought differently," says To, a Democratic Party member and core supporter of three major protests since July 1 that have caught the leaders of China by surprise. "Deng Xiaoping once said that Hong Kong is a 'base of subversion.' In some ways he was right."

Tensions over Hong Kong's feisty season of protests were raised a discernable notch by Beijing this week. An editorial in the Monday Hong Kong edition of China Daily, a top Party news organ, condemned democrats like To for turning the protests "into a vehicle for subverting the political system in Hong Kong [and] undermining the authority of the chief executive."

The people of Hong Kong should "pull themselves together," and "think carefully what they should do next," the editorial stated. Though the editorial did not appear in the mainland China edition of the paper, it represents the first official statement by Beijing, nearly two weeks after some 500,000 people marched to protest what is called here the "draconian" Article 23.

Two smaller protests ensued, on July 9 and July 13, as lawyers, legislators, civic activists, and church leaders have decided to channel widespread public anger over the Beijing-backed chief executive Tung Che Hwa into a more affirmative desire for what is known as "full democracy." That means the initiation of moves toward direct elections for Hong Kong's top leader and 60-seat legislature.

Since July 1, Mr. Tung has said nothing about the "universal suffrage" asked for by the protesters - though it is an eventuality promised in the Basic Law that governs Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Article 23 is seen as a means for Beijing to target groups like the Falun Gong spiritual movement, some fundamentalist Christian sects, and pro-Tibet or Taiwan groups. (Most Hong Kong-nese support the concept of a national security bill, but not the version that the government here tried to pass.)

The origins of the controversial law date to the 1989 Tiananmen Squareepisode in Beijing, when students chanting democratic slogans were shot at by Chinese soldiers called in to restore order.

Many of those student protesters fled to Hong Kong - a traditional haven for social and political activists in Chinese history. At that time, negotiations between Britain and China over Hong Kong's return were well underway. After Tiananmen, Beijing insisted that Article 23 be included in the Basic Law as a means of curbing "anti- revolutionary" behavior, or subversion.

Since 1989, most of the core group of student protesters that escaped to Hong Kong have left. But some stayed and joined with activists to spawn the Democratic Party in Hong Kong. With an almost exclusive focus on local politics, the Democratic Party rose to become the most popular party in the 1990s and seems to have been renewed by the protests this month. One of its main planks is to bring about a directly elected chief executive by 2007.

In American terms, the Hong Kong democrats be found on the leftist, social- democratic side of the political spectrum.

"We were influenced ... by Western ideas, by the ideas of participation in the process, by the dignity of the individual, and by the more expansive notions that people are not culturally bound by the past or by a restrictive identity," says the chairman of the Democratic Party, Yueng Sam.

Hong Kong's cosmopolitan nature as a trading post under the British for 156 years helped promote its identity as a refuge, historians say. It has been a place for leaders like Sun Yat Sen, considered the founder of modern China, who lived here for several years. Communists in the '30s and '40s, nationalists, Red Guards in the 1960s, and political and religious figures have used it as a base of operations. Currently, the Roman Catholic Church's top official in Hong Kong, Bishop Joseph Zen, is an outspoken critic of the mainland and of Article 23.

Human rights groups and labor leaders like Frank Lu and Han Dong Fang are also examples of those holding dissenting opinions. The city was a transit point in Asia for displaced persons of many nationalities, including the Vietnamese boat people.

In some ways over the past decade, bustling Hong Kong has begun to settle down into a place of middle-class citizenship. Most of the protesters in recent weeks, for example, have come from the educated classes - doctors, computer specialists, engineers, and financiers. Still, they remember 20 years of outmigration to the US, Canada, and Europe over fear of what might happen when Beijing took over.

A challenge for Beijing

Since the handover, however, little overt meddling has taken place, business people here report; no one worries about Chinese soldiers in the streets.

Beijing's next move remains unclear. The Hong Kong question is a challenge for the new leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. The signals China sends regarding its "special autonomous region" may vary depending on which faction emerges.

The China Daily editorial denouncing the Hong Kong protests was called "alarming," by Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a specialist based in Hong Kong. He argues, "Hong Kong leaders need to stay in tune with the people, but I'm not sure Beijing understands this."

Yet Mr. Cabestan and others point to sympathetic comments by a leading trade official from China's Hainan Island as an example of how divided opinion seems to be on the mainland regarding Hong Kong's demands for elections.

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