China May See Hong Kong As a Lab Test

Post-takeover, hopes spread that enclave's example may infuse China with democracy

Here along the still heavily guarded border between Hong Kong and China's mainland lies a deep political and legal fault line.

On this side, prodemocracy activists can openly call for an end to one-party dictatorship. On the other, any public criticism of the Chinese Communist Party is punished with a long jail term.

So far, in the days since it took back Hong Kong, China has largely lived up to its promise of maintaining "one country, two systems."

But a new idea has quickly gained currency here among leading politicians, dissidents, and scholars: Will Beijing see Hong Kong as a "special political zone" whose experiments with Western-style freedoms and pluralism might be slowly introduced into other parts of China?

The idea flies in the face of conventional wisdom in Hong Kong, where many residents expect their new Chinese rulers to move to stamp out the territory's fledgling democracy and entrenched freedoms.

Some fear the border protecting the enclave's freedoms, rather than moving northward toward Beijing, could retreat and disappear into the South China Sea.

Some people here say they intend to man the barricades against assaults from Beijing on press and speech rights in the hope of effecting a gradual increase in freedoms throughout China.

"Hong Kong has always been a beacon for China - economically, culturally, and, I believe, politically," says Martin Lee, cofounder of the Democratic Party here. "We have an obligation to continue to be a beacon after the handover," he adds.

Although Beijing has pledged to maintain Hong Kong's capitalist economy and British-inspired legal system, it has also moved to curb the enclave's civil liberties and voting rights.

Mr. Lee, one of the territory's most respected human rights advocates, lost his post in the freely elected legislature here on July 1, as members of Beijing's hand-picked replacement congress were sworn into office. The pro-Beijing lawmakers are now considering proposals to alter voting procedures and districting in a law that critics say would limit the strength of Lee's Democratic Party in future elections.

Despite his ouster, Lee says that Hong Kong must "survive as an example to China of what free people under the rule of law can achieve."

But China's communist leaders have long feared the territory's political influence on the mainland. Hong Kong activists channeled huge sums to their Chinese counterparts during the 1989 democracy movement and helped many student leaders flee the mainland during the Army's Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Hong Kong's newly appointed legislators are set to pass an antisubversion law that some suspect could be used to punish outspoken dissidents.

"China fears that 'subversives' in Hong Kong could challenge the [Communist] Party's rule, and over the short term Beijing is likely to roll back democratic reforms," says David Shambaugh, who heads an Asian studies center at George Washington University in the American capital.

Yet over the longer term, Beijing could restart political liberalizations that were frozen in 1989, and that in turn could lead to greater tolerance for Hong Kong's freedoms, he adds.

Although China's 50-million-strong Communist Party now seems like a Goliath compared with the territory's 6.3 million residents, Hong Kong holds a powerful economic slingshot.

More than half of China's foreign investment is channeled through the territory, and Hong Kong businesses employ millions of workers in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

"In a curious way, Hong Kong's influence on China has been much stronger than China's on Hong Kong," says Tu Weiming, a scholar at Harvard University. "Beijing wants to use Hong Kong's example to push forward economic reforms, but no one in the leadership has yet held up Hong Kong as a political model."

Beijing has attempted to build a political fire wall around the enclave and has anointed Tung Chee Hwa, a Confucian-minded businessman who stresses social order over individual liberties, to head Hong Kong.

Tung is likely to try to rein in Hong Kong's democrats and clamp down on any protests whose fallout could spread across the border, Professor Shambaugh says.

Yet if Hong Kong's political system survives the next few years, it could have a strengthening influence on China into the next century, he adds.

"If there are no immediate challenges to the party's rule, it could feel strong enough to restart political reforms down the road," the Chinese intellectual says.

The leadership has been quietly introducing multicandidate votes in the country's 1 million villages, where independents have been permitted to compete against Communist Party members for low-level posts.

"Experiments in democracy at the village level have been overwhelmingly positive," says Professor Tu, who adds that Hong Kong could eventually serve as a guidepost in China's political evolution.

To be sure, many Communist conservatives still back the use of police and prisons to guard "political stability." But some reformists have signaled they want to chart a postrevolutionary future for China.

"If [Chinese President] Jiang Zemin and other leaders are serious about moving toward a more pluralist system," Shambaugh says, "then Hong Kong is the perfect place to experiment."

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