A steady rot?

South China Morning Post  |  Aug 20, 2003

By Sin-ming Shaw

Last month's mass demonstrations in Hong Kong continue to echo. Never in Hong Kong's history has popular opposition - uniting investment bankers, street hawkers, civil servants and artists, among others - been so loud.

Now China's communist rulers are dithering about how to respond.

One objective of the demonstrators was to voice their desire to select Hong Kong's future leaders through universal suffrage. Today, 800 electors handpicked by the mainland Chinese government - who mostly represent big business - choose Hong Kong's chief executive.

Resistance to the second five-year term of Hong Kong's incompetent and sycophantic chief executive creates a grave dilemma for China's communist rulers. Before July's protests, they had hoped that Hong Kong would provide such a good example of "one country, two systems" that Taiwan would be lured into accepting the sovereignty of the government in Beijing.

But now Taiwan's leaders point to Hong Kong as a failed model of a flawed concept.

Indeed, Mr Tung Chee-hwa's anticipatory subservience to the real or imagined wishes of China's rulers exposed the congenital flaw in the political architecture of uniting a liberal society with a dictatorship. That flaw infects the heart of the "one country, two systems" notion: the idea that genuine autonomy can exist in a country whose supreme leaders do not believe in rule by consent.

Now China's communist rulers find themselves in a bind. If they back Mr Tung unconditionally for the rest of his term, they can look forward to the collapse of their long-term strategy to reabsorb Taiwan, for the alternative to peaceful reunification is coercion. But this increases the likelihood of military confrontation with the US, Taiwan's protector.

In this context, the steady build-up of China's short- to medium-range missile capability is a cause for alarm. Such a nightmare scenario isn't at all likely in Hong Kong, but a steady rot of Hong Kong's vitality is. For if the frustrations of ordinary Hong Kong citizens are allowed to fester without a genuine commitment by China to allow for universal suffrage by 2007, a far more serious eruption of social and political unrest beckons.

Such frustrations are growing. Unemployment now stands at almost 9 per cent - unimaginable before the handover in 1997, when both Mr Tung and China promised that Hong Kong would do even better under Chinese sovereignty than British rule. China's leaders and their handpicked servants in Hong Kong may still believe that Mr Tung's popularity will improve if and when the economy does. So they comfort themselves with the thought that demands for democratisation reflect Hong Kong's economic woes, nothing more.

But six years of divisive and dismissively haughty misrule by Mr Tung's administration, which pits one group against another as its preferred method of governance, suggest that Hong Kong's problems are much deeper.

It is now an acrimoniously divided society harking back to the days when Chinese communists routinely classified their own citizens as either "the people" or "enemies of the state".

Most of Hong Kong's people now recognise that their stagnating economy is not merely a matter of bad policy. It also results from deeply flawed political structures. In an oligarchic economy such as Hong Kong's, the costs of stagnation and the fruits of growth are distributed in grossly unfair ways. This cynical structure must be changed if people are to have enough confidence in the future for the economy to recover.

If China's rulers heed the wishes of Hong Kong's seven million people to have the right to elect their own leaders through direct elections, however, they face the prospect that China's 1.3 billion people will demand the same right. Perhaps so. But a political system is only ever truly put at risk when leaders consistently misrule.

Indeed, democracies are so stable because they allow misrule to be ended through regularly scheduled elections. Because stability is their great goal, China's communist rulers, if they are wise, will allow Hong Kong to show the way to a system in which Chinese govern themselves democratically, peacefully and prosperously.

Taiwan has already done so. Hong Kong, linked physically to the mainland, provides a more intimate case study for China's people to watch and one day follow.

But if the goal is merely for the communists to retain their monopoly on power in both Hong Kong and China, then the rot that has settled into Hong Kong's polity and its economy may begin to infect the mainland. At that point, China might wish it had never heard of Tung Chee-hwa. Indeed, it might wish it had never secured Hong Kong's return.

Sin-ming Shaw was formerly a leading Hong Kong investment fund manager. He is now a resident scholar at Oriel College, Oxford University.

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