- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2003

Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, Donald Tsang, said yesterday that the former British colony now under China’s rule had learned a lesson during its recent attempt to enact a new antisubversion law backed by Beijing.

Mr. Tsang, the former Hong Kong financial secretary who is now the city’s chief secretary for administration, called the decision to withdraw the measure a “pragmatic” one after the government clearly misjudged the depth of opposition.

“If the people are not happy, you can’t force it down their throats,” said Mr. Tsang, who met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday as part of a nine-day visit to the United States.

Hong Kong’s government, led by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, faced a constitutional obligation to revise the subversion provisions in the so-called “Basic Law,” drawn up in 1984 as a fundamental charter to spell out the terms under which the colony would be handed over to China in 1997. The law serves as a kind of constitution.

However, an estimated half-million Hong Kong residents took to the streets July 1 to protest the required revisions, which opponents argued would curb civil liberties and cut into the rights of free speech and assembly.

Mr. Tung, after first insisting he would press forward with the amendments, on Sept. 5 announced the government was withdrawing the bill and would bring up a revised version at some unspecified future date.

The July 1 demonstration was the largest of its kind since the British handover, and raised fresh questions about Mr. Tung’s administration and the depth of his support in Beijing.

Mr. Tsang said the Basic Law dispute had been a “maturing process” for both sides.

The demonstrations, while large, were peaceful, and the government is determined to learn from its mistakes as well, he said.

The protests became a magnet for a wide range of grievances against the Beijing-appointed government, and Mr. Tsang acknowledged that the open show of public dissent had left China’s communist leaders in Beijing “anxious.”

“It will affect our style of government in the future,” he said. “We have to listen better to opposition views. We have to pursue policies with a larger consensus rather than just counting votes in the legislature.”

Mr. Tsang, whose U.S. schedule included meeting with top business leaders in New York and in California’s Silicon Valley, said that his city’s world-class economy has weathered political and social shocks of recent months and is poised for a strong rebound.

With an eye on the restive Hong Kong situation, Beijing has approved a free-trade pact between the island and the mainland, a decision that will give Hong Kong merchandise exporters a major price advantage over international rivals when it takes effect Jan. 1.

Mr. Tsang said the free-trade accord could mean a boost of 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent to Hong Kong’s annual economic output.

In addition, Beijing has offered unprecedented freedom for ordinary Chinese from a number of cities to travel to Hong Kong, a move that has already proven a boon to the city’s hotel and tourism industries.

Opposition parties say the moves reflect Beijing’s analysis that the summer’s demonstration reflects at heart an unhappiness with the state of the economy, not a burning desire for greater political freedoms.

That thesis will be tested in next year’s parliamentary elections, when 30 of the 60 seats in the Legislative Council will decided by direct election.

Currently, only 24 seats are decided by vote, with the government appointing the remainder.

Noted Hong Kong political analyst Willy Lam recently told the Inter Press Service: “Not only Tung but also Beijing is worried that [the democratic opposition] may win next year’s elections.”

Mr. Tsang said it remained to be seen how the upcoming campaign will be conducted and whether there is room for compromise on the antisubversion laws.

“The opposition would be failing in their duty if they did not oppose us,” he observed.

Mr. Tsang also maintained that Hong Kong had weathered the SARS epidemic, which has played havoc with trade and tourism throughout the region.

A total of 299 Hong Kong residents, including eight doctors and nurses, died from severe acute respiratory syndrome, and another 1,750 were taken ill.

But the chief secretary called the government’s frank dealing with the crisis a “defining moment” that showed Hong Kong’s ability to deal openly and effectively with the health crisis in a way that several other East Asian governments did not.

The SARS scare proved only an “economic blip” for Hong Kong, and international forecasters expect to see gross domestic product growth of about 2 percent this year and 4 percent to 5 percent in 2004.

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