Beijing is nimbly withdrawing its man in Hong Kong, and in doing so is subtly thumbing its nose at the one-country, two-system principle that guided Britain’s handover of the territory to China in 1997.
Beijing has quietly leaked its decision to retire the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to a ceremonial advisory body that is largely reserved for former politicians. Mr. Tung had clumsily made Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong too overt, causing massive unrest. He also mishandled the 2003 outbreak of SARS. Mr. Tung’s attempts to introduce “anti-subversion” legislation backfired, forcing mainland politicians to endure the spectacle of half a million Hong Kongers taking to the streets to protest the bill in July 2003. Last July 1, during the seventh anniversary of Britain’s return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, close to half a million people took to the streets again, calling for democratic reform.
Beijing now wants a chief executive more skilled in the fine art of veiling the puppet strings it will be controlling. Donald Tsang, the chief secretary, appears to have what Beijing is looking for.
But there is more to Beijing’s latest moves, however, than a desire to install a more able puppet-master. By in effect ordering Mr. Tung’s resignation now, before the current term of the Electoral Committee expires on July 13, Beijing is betting that it can stymie political reform. The next 800-member committee could be less compliant with its wishes than the current one, and could push for a more democratic electoral system. Last April, Beijing’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee ruled against direct elections in Hong Kong when the next vote is held for the chief executive in 2007 and the legislature in 2008 — changes many Hong Kongers are pushing for. If Mr. Tsang or another new chief executive is elected by the current committee, his term would not expire until 2010, making moot the question of direct elections for that position until then.
Beijing is betting that if it can install a smoother chief executive and the territory continues prospering, calls for democracy will lose momentum. If Beijing’s wager pays off, then it will probably become more assertive in broadening its clout internationally (Taiwan beware) and crushing dissent domestically.
Still, China’s wager could go awry. If Beijing’s attempt to sidetrack democratic progress in Hong Kong fails and the people take to the street en masse, it will probably have to grant concessions under duress. That sign of weakness would be duly noted by the people on the mainland. The outcome of China’s leadership shuffle remains uncertain, but Beijing’s intentions are disconcertingly transparent.