- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

Historians generally divide into two schools: the paranoids, who believe that there is a secret plot behind everything that happens, and the realists, who think that most large events are the result of a blunder somewhere. The remarkable events in Hong Kong over the past two weeks are a powerful argument for the blunder theory of History. They are also very encouraging.

It is not clear why Hong Kong’s chief executive, Tung Chee-wha, chose this July to enact a draconian new law on sedition. The basic law that has served as a kind of constitution since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 requires the passage of a security law covering issues like subversion and spying eventually, but under the “One Country, Two Systems” deal that guaranteed civil rights and limited democracy in the former British colony, the communist authorities in Beijing left both the details and the timing of those laws to local lawmakers.

Maybe some people in Beijing suggested that Mr. Tung should get a move on with an anti-subversion law, but there is no evidence that the orders came from the top, or that Beijing wrote the harsh clauses that horrified most people in Hong Kong. It’s more likely to be the old story of the overzealous subordinate trying too hard to please the master, and making a major mess in the process. Anyway, Mr. Tung brought in the law, and the people of Hong Kong basically threw it out.

Hong Kongers have traditionally been seen as people who do not care about politics so long as they can go on making money, but on the July 1 in the stifling heat of midsummer half a million of them came out on the streets in a good-humoured but massive demonstration against the new law. The sheer number of people astonished everybody, including the organizers. It was the biggest demonstration anywhere in China since the communist regime nearly lost power during the pro-democracy demonstrations on Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989, and it changed everything.

The opposition leaders were not impressed by the token concessions that Mr. Tung offered, but he insisted that his anti-subversion bill would still go before the Legislative Council on Wednesday, July 9. So the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong promised more and bigger demonstrations — but meanwhile, up in Beijing, surprise and confusion was rapidly turning to worry.

What if the demonstrations get out of hand in Hong Kong, which still earns much of China’s foreign exchange? What if they spread to China itself, where popular grievances are far bigger and the government has even less legitimacy in the public’s eyes? What has that fool Mr. Tung set loose? Soon Hong Kong businessman James Tien, an ally of Mr. Tung’s, was flying back from a visit to Beijing with some important news.

Two senior Chinese officials had told him, Mr. Tien said, that Hong Kong was free to decide both the timing and the content of the security legislation on its own. In these circumstances, his Liberal Party could not support Mr. Tung’s law now. Without the votes of the Liberals (not elected politicians, but a group chosen by the business community who normally put “stability” and good relations with Beijing first), Mr. Tung had no chance of getting his law through the Legislative Council, so late last Sunday he deferred it indefinitely.

Beijing will probably replace the badly damaged Mr. Tung in a few months, and no new attack on civil rights in Hong Kong is likely to happen soon. Good. But what does Beijing’s placatory response to this crisis tell us about the state of affairs in China itself?

It tells us that the new “fourth generation” of leaders who took over most of the senior positions in November understand what thin ice they are skating on. This is good news, as it is in nobody’s interest that they fall in. What China and the rest of the world needs is not another Tienanmen Square, but a recognition by the communist leadership that the country must have gradual democratization if it is not to have a political explosion whenever a serious economic downturn comes along.

President Hu Jintao and the men around him, having just attained supreme power, are not going to hand it over any time soon, but their response to the recent events in Hong Kong shows that they understand enough not to pour fuel on the flames. They will back up, compromise, make deals, anything that keeps the show on the road a little longer, and maybe that will win enough time for real political changes to start happening.

Gwynne Dyer is a columnist based in London.


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