Beijing asserts itself in Hong Kong's political fray

The city's chief delivered no reform timetable Wednesday, opting for Beijing consultation instead.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A Hong Kong delegate to China's People's Congress warned Thursday that the city could become unstable and insecure if activists are successful in their bid for direct elections. He compared the efforts at democracy in Hong Kong unfavorably with the problems now faced by Russia and Central Asian states after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"What Hong Kong people want is security and stability. The business community is worried that we are moving too fast into a welfare state," said Peter Wong, a Beijing-appointed member of the National People's Congress. "Look at Russia, look at Central Asia. We don't want to repeat that."

Mr. Wong's statement may be the closest thing to an explanation by powers that be in Hong Kong about why the unpopular chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, did not offer a timetable for democratic reforms in an annual speech Wednesday. A large proportion of Hong Kong's middle class have asked for political change, and on New Year's Day, some 100,000 marched in support of direct elections for the city's chief executive and legislature - crowds that are worrisome to Beijing.

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Yet Chief Tung's omission of even a reference to the word "democracy" in the annual address left reform leaders pledging a political fight in the coming months between the people and the authorities in Hong Kong. Significantly, Mr. Tung's creation of a task force to consult with Beijing is the clearest sign to date that China's leaders have decisively stepped into Hong Kong politics, a touchy subject since Hong Kong is ostensibly autonomous.

"There was a hope in the city that the government would embrace and even get out in front of the people's desires for reform," says Michael Davis, a University of Hong Kong professor and board member of a civic group called Article 45. "What this shows instead is that this will be a battle. I hope Tung is prepared to lose big [in legislative elections] next September."

Roughly 88 percent of Hong Kong people want constitutional reform before 2007, the earliest date it can take place under the Basic Law, according to a poll to be released next week by Civic Exchange, a citizens group. Approximately 81 percent of Hong Kong people desire direct elections of their leadership, and 70 percent desire this in 2007. About 58 percent want China's new leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, to dismiss Tung.

During his address, Tung took up employment, tourism, and development, but devoted only four paragraphs to the hot-button issue of reform.

Democrats accused Tung of delaying tactics that ignore mainstream feelings here and are aimed at killing the democracy movement. Tung "may as well have drafted his policy address on Mars, since it deviates so much against public aspirations," stated opposition member Lee Cheuk-yan.

"The government promised to release a timetable in December, but they withdrew that idea," says Richard Tsoi, of the Civil Human Rights Front, and leader of a 500,000-person march on July 1. "Why form a big task force to consult with Beijing? In accord with the Basic Law [the constitution that outlines Hong Kong's autonomy under the 'one country, two systems' framework after the British handover in 1997] it is for the Hong Kong people to discuss their further development. I'm pessimistic right now."

Yet Wong of Beijing's National People's Congress, in a forum in downtown Hong Kong Thursday, said the shift from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 has been an enormous undertaking. Change must be gradual. "Too many changes too fast are a problem ... Talking is one thing, acting is another. It could affect our stability. When unemployment improves, fewer people will be marching on the street," he said.

Wong, a UC Berkeley-educated engineer, suggested that even peaceful public marches can create disorder. He urged Hong Kong people to act "in a more harmonious way," though he did not suggest what that might be. In an indirect reference to Beijing, he stated, "We have to live with many brothers and sisters in our family, and you have to consider the desire of the other." China operates a military garrison in Hong Kong, though few troops are ever seen in this metropolis of London-style double-decker buses and distinctive skyscrapers.

Democrats roundly attacked Wong. The idea that Hong Kong would come unglued by direct elections, or that the business community was cowering, was called "rubbish" by one former civil servant here.

"Anson Chan would win the office of chief executive today, if she were allowed to run," says Richard Burn, head of the business lobbying firm APCO Asia - referring to Hong Kong's most popular civil servant, who resigned two years ago. "She wouldn't turn Hong Kong into chaos. What rubbish. Does business in New York really suffer from elections?"

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