HONG KONG — Clashes over the future of Hong Kong have brought out differences between the cosmopolitan city and China's communist capital that are deeper than anticipated. China has of late received high marks internationally for an accommodating foreign policy, and has delivered an impressive amount of economic benefits that enable urban Chinese to purchase homes and cars.
Yet political developments in Hong Kong, which enjoys a degree of free expression and self-rule not found on the mainland, have raised a rhetorical barrage from Beijing that some liken to the 1960s, when squads of young ideologues denounced "the running dogs of imperialism."
State media have been the main tool in a month of blunt criticism of Hong Kong's "people power" movement for direct elections. This week state news agencies again went into high gear to criticize legislator Martin Lee, a well-known activist who gave testimony about democratic sentiments before the US Senate's Asian and Pacific Subcommitte on March 4.
Mr. Lee's visit to the US, termed a traitor by state media, earned three days of hostile commentary by the official Hong Kong China News Agency. The criticism followed a personal attack on Lee's father, an officer in the Koumintang Army, by an agitated vice minister in Beijing during the annual National People's Congress. Lee was pilloried for consorting with "foreigners," and Xinhua News Service called him a "running dog."
Some analysts say the media blitz and the Lee issue, which dominated talk radio in Hong Kong for days, is an effort to divide public opinion over how quickly the former British colony should move toward direct elections. Hong Kong will vote for its legislature in September elections whose outcome could lead to calls to directly elect the chief executive.
Friends of Lee say he decided to speak on Capitol Hill after China began attacking prodemocracy forces. Last month Beijing called for a patriotic test for future leaders and released a blacklist of Hong Kong groups considered anti-Beijing. Such statements, which alternately dismayed and cowed elements of the population, were a departure from the silence China had kept since last summer when 500,000 peaceful marchers changed the political dynamics here.
"What's happening is that a hard-line regime is trying to suppress a democracy movement," says Michael Davis, a professor of law at City University of Hong Kong. "Beijing may be using the language of patriotism, but it doesn't change the facts. Martin [Lee] felt the world should know about these issues, so he went to the US."
In the US Senate, Lee said Hong Kong needs an accountable leadership, and even offered praise and hope for the new generation of leadership in Beijing, quoting a speech made in Australia by current leader Hu Jintao, describing democracy as the "common pursuit of mankind."
China's position is that Western nations have steadily praised China's administration of Hong Kong, that direct elections are not part of Hong Kong's history but were promoted by Britain only on the eve of its handover of the colony, and that Lee is attempting to convince Washington to pressure Beijing over what is an internal matter. China supports gradual change in Hong Kong.
"What [Lee] actually stood for were only an extremely tiny number of elements that intend to disrupt Hong Kong," said the official mouthpiece.