Hong Kong chief backs off unpopular legislation

On Friday, Tung Chee-hwa withdrew a security bill that spurred summer protests.

When a half-million people politely massed on the sun-baked streets here in July, few imagined their actions had much power. Protest leaders assumed a hated security bill that could curb political and religious freedom was a done deal; they even planned a second protest for the day the "Article 23" bill was to pass.

Yet the outpouring of sentiment caught Beijing and Hong Kong officials off guard and brought a pause. On Friday, chief executive Tung Chee-hwa withdrew the security bill indefinitely.

The summer standoff had been closely watched in Asia as a test of how the new Hu Jintao government in Beijing would handle the upstart former British Colony. Now, some activists here give Beijing positive marks for shelving the unpopular bill - feeling it shows a calm and modern approach to the "special autonomous region," as Hong Kong is called.

"I'm happy to give Beijing unreserved brownie points for this. It was a big move," says Christine Loh, head of Civic Exchange, a reform group here. "Beijing realized it had to reassess its take on Hong Kong. This was very pragmatic."

Chief Tung's abrupt announcement on Sept. 5, coming after a year of tempest, surprised opponents of the bill nearly as much as the July mass protest surprised the chief minister. Only a day earlier the new security chief in Hong Kong, Ambrose Lee, had met with an influential legal group, informing them a new "consultative" bill would be ready for comment later this month.

Hong Kong residents took the Article 23 withdrawal with a bit of a shrug. Over the weekend, debate heated up among civic groups over whether Tung's unusual concession was a serious nod to public feeling, a trial balloon, or a tactical move to take away a messy issue prior to upcoming elections next year. That vote could swing the city's legislative assembly toward a more "democratic" majority that would push for direct elections of the chief executive, a job now appointed indirectly by Beijing.

Early last week the strongest pro-Beijing party here, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) had urged Tung to wait until after elections to reintroduce the Article 23 hot potato.

"What I think [Hong Kong authorities] are doing is what they always do, hedging their bets, only going as far as they have to," says Michael Davis, a legal scholar and member of the Article 23 Concern Group, which met last week with Security Chief Lee. "They want to preserve whatever options they have until the political climate is more favorable. They haven't said what their plan actually is."

Mr. Tung told reporters it was time for Hong Kong to focus on its troubled economy, and that he awaited "support from the people" before moving ahead on Article 23.

The security bill that Tung tried unsuccessfully to ram through the Hong Kong assembly last July is a complex piece of legislation that opponents say goes far past what the language of Article 23, enshrined in the Basic Law that governs Hong Kong, actually requires. They say Tung's bill would allow police to search homes, and that its vague legal terms can be interpreted to allow arrest of journalists who discover malfeasance, and politicians that speak their opinions too freely.

Last month, for example, lawmaker Emily Lau, head of the democratic Frontier Party in Hong Kong, was roundly chastised in a China Daily editorial for a visit she made to a Taiwan conference organized by Lee Teng-hui, the architect of Taiwan separatism. The China Daily, considered a mouthpiece of the mainland government, implied that Ms. Lau's visit was prosecutable under Article 23. (Since then, Lau's party headquarters here has been defaced, and smeared with feces.)

After the July protests, unusual for a city known to be apolitical, and largely made up of white-collar professionals, China watchers have been divided over the degree of pressure Beijing would exert to get the security bill passed. Some analysts felt that Beijing's pride was at stake.

Not only was it unseemly for a great power to be confronted by a city-state that was already flying the national flag, they argued, but the Communist Party elite was concerned that the Hong Kong protest could give the wrong idea to intellectuals and labor groups on the mainland.

(An Aug. 27 Washington Post article lays out a new set of directives from Beijing - halting what had been a brief period this spring of more-open discussion about political and constitutional reform in China - as well as a possible revise of the Tiananmen Square debacle of 1989. To squelch the nascent debate, the government is suppressing conferences, academic essays, and media reports, sometimes with harassment, according to the article.)

Yet by showing some measure of flexibility on the Hong Kong question, analysts say, Beijing can present a more conciliatory face to the world.

More to the point, had Beijing pushed hard for the original bill to pass, and again found feisty resistance and streets full of bankers with white shirts and ties - China's leaders could offer a juicy issue to the struggling pro-independence ruling party in Taiwan, that faces an uphill election next March.

On Saturday, pro-Taiwan forces in Taipei held a mass march downtown on behalf of a separate political identity for the island.

What Beijing and Tung instead seem to have chosen is a cooling off period that offers a host of economic perks usable by pro-Beijing parties like the DAB. Hong Kong firms have chafed for years at their bids being sidelined on projects like a lucrative bridge project from the city to Macao. Yet after the summer protests, Hong Kong firms will build the bridge.

Last month the mainland also announced that Chinese of means can apply for individual visas to Hong Kong. Until then, only tour groups were allowed to visit. The amount of money mainlanders can bring into Hong Kong has been raised from $2,000, to $5,000.

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