'Patriot' test for Hong Kong

After eight months of an unexpectedly strong "people power" movement in Hong Kong, China's most international city, the central government here is striking back against populist sentiments. In a systematic campaign orchestrated in Beijing and carried out in Hong Kong, it is being made clear that only those deemed "patriotic" can hold high office in Hong Kong.

At the same time, Beijing is asserting that, while the former colony may enjoy special status in the "one country, two systems" formula that governed its handover by the British in 1997, real power decisions will be made in Beijing. The move is controversial given that prior to the handover Beijing agreed it would not interfere in Hong Kong affairs for five more decades.

For nearly two weeks now - in news releases, on official media websites, in meetings, and in statements by pro-Beijing politicians, business tycoons, and legal scholars - the word is going out that only those who "love the motherland and 'One Country' " can be trusted "with the security, stability, and development" of the country, as the official China Daily put it last week.

The campaign seems like a wet rag applied to recent enthusiasm for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, and critics say it is being used to dampen support for direct elections in 2007, which are permitted under Hong Kong's Basic Law. The Hong Kong government and Beijing were caught off guard last July by 500,000 peaceful protesters demonstrating against a national security law imposed by the unpopular Tung Che Hwa, chief executive of Hong Kong selected by Beijing. Since that time a democracy movement has unexpectedly gained force and stature inside the city. Hong Kong voters showed up in record numbers in a district election last November, putting out of power a number of top pro-Beijing politicians.

Some of the tactics and rhetoric employed by Beijing in its patriotism campaign seem lifted from decades-old scripts. Tuesday's China Daily ran an article stating that the discussion on defining patriotism is "meaningful" in Hong Kong, and that it "has served as a demon-detector that unveils the hidden agenda of certain politicians." The day before at a chamber of commerce meeting, a senior Beijing adviser sang "No Communist Party, No New China," a Mao-era standard.

Some commentary has a threatening edge. A presumably official source in Beijing quoted this week by Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong daily, offered a warning to pro-democracy advocates: "I have a knife, which I don't usually use. Now it's you who force me to use this knife."

Democracy activists in Hong Kong argue that the patriotism campaign is an attempt to confuse, intimidate, and divert attention from what they say is an attempt in Beijing to reinterpret or distort the plain meaningHong Kong's Basic Law. Two weeks ago, a Hong Kong "task force" visiting Beijing to discuss constitutional reforms was given a frosty reception. Shortly after, officials here leaked word that no direct elections in 2007 were to be allowed.

"This is redolent of the way China conducted business 20 years ago," argues Margaret Ng, a legal representative of the Hong Kong legislature. "All the speeches of [President Hu Jintao] and [Premier Wen Jiabao] as they travel around the world appear to be liberal and open. Yet we in Hong Kong are now worried.

Leading democratic activists and even officials in the Hong Kong public information service point out that no group in Hong Kong advocates succession or independence. "The question of patriotism had come from Beijing, and the question ought to be asked," says Paul Brown, a Hong Kong spokesman. "The problem is one of interpretation. But no one here is being very extreme. Everyone knows that nothing can happen without China's blessing."

Last week, Chief Tung laid out five principles that democracy activists say are attempts to embellish the Basic Law. Among these are a requirement that all revisions to Hong Kong's political structure come through the executive branch. Sources say this point is designed to subvert the possibility of change through the legislature, which this September will face new and broader elections.

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