Reflections on Hong Kong's Role in China
Mr Lawrence Ho (He Liang-liang), Deputy Director of Editorial Department, Phoenix Satellite Television, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 11 December 2003. This is a summary of his remarks.
It was important to establish whether Hong Kong had a political or an economic role within China, said Mr Ho. From 1842, at the time of the later Qing dynasty, Hong Kong’s main role within China was political. Hong Kong was a mooring space for opposition parties - at various times the Communists, the Kuo Min Tang (KMT), and other political groups. Shanghai had the main economic role; opposition parties found space for their opposition in Hong Kong. The territory continued in this role until the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
After the revolution, Hong Kong became not very important politically. The Beijing Government decided not to retake Hong Kong, hoping to maintain good standing with the international community. Beijing was then a member of the socialist camp, and sought good relations with the Soviet Union. The Korean War destroyed the last hope of good relations with Washington. Then Hong Kong took on a very important, in fact irreplaceable role in both economic and political terms. China's trade with, and travel to and from, the rest of the world was channelled through Hong Kong. In 1955, Premier Zhou En-lai stopped in Hong Kong on his way to Jakarta: there was no direct flight. Politically, Hong Kong became China's tunnel for interaction with Taiwan and the West.
In the 1980s, China became more open to the world, and Hong Kong remained important, now as China’s main source of foreign investment. As an opening and developing market economy during the cold war, Hong Kong was China's main economic bridge to the world.
In June 1989, Beijing was alarmed at the apparent strength of feeling in Hong Kong. The authorities feared that Hong Kong would become a base to threaten the Government. This fear fed through into the drafting of the Basic Law. Beijing wanted to continue the executive-led governmental structure as established in colonial times. So from 1989, it can be said that Hong Kong started to challenge the Mainland in politics.
Deng Xiao Ping noted Hong Kong's role as economic motor for China. His 1992 nan xun (southern tour) to Shenzhen gave a big lift to China's economic development. However, following the handover, Hong Kong's crisis began. This was a failure of its political institutions, and of its ability to transform itself to take up a new role. Beijing’s accession to the World Trade Organisation marked China's entry into the world economic system, and with it the last stage of Hong Kong's role as a bridge between China and the world.
The present year, 2003, had seen the massive demonstration against the Hong Kong Government on 1 July, and the district board elections in November in which record numbers of voters expressed their dissatisfaction with parties aligned with the Government. Because of China's political culture, it was hard for Beijing to accept universal suffrage. Yet all around China, previously dictatorial regimes had been replaced by democracies, in Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines.
Hong Kong could enter a new phase of its role as a bridge between China and the West if it became a democracy. The adoption of universal suffrage in Hong Kong could promote democratic development in Mainland China. Following the Ming doctrine - "Admire the way, but do not act too radically" - Beijing could make use of the change in election procedure in 2007 as an opportunity.
Beijing had not said "No" directly to universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2007. On the occasion of Tung's visit to Beijing, the opportunity had been taken to brief Hong Kong people. Hu stated the principle - Hong Kong's democratic development was to proceed step by step in line with the Basic Law. Then the four legal experts stated their understanding, which was essentially negative. This was Beijing's message to Hong Kong people.
For Beijing, there would be more difficulties in future, and it would be worthwhile for them to better understand democracy. Taiwan politicians were challenging Beijing's political right to dictate terms to them. If Beijing were to take a strong position against Hong Kong's democratic development, there would be repercussions on the relationship with the Taiwanese people. If the Taiwan situation remained peaceful, this would be favourable to further democratic development in Hong Kong. But if there was war, the situation would become very restricted. So Taiwan and Hong Kong were mutually affected by one another's development.
Jiang Ze-min's position on democracy was very conservative. Essentially, he believed, Xi hua was equivalent to fen hua, i.e. that the West wanted a divided China, and that Westernisation through for example democratisation would split the country. However, Jiang was not the only relevant figure. Vice President Zeng Qing-hong, who is in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs was the one who in a previous role had pioneered village elections.
Beijing had sent many people to Shenzhen to watch Hong Kong's district board elections. The result was a big surprise to them. Many people within China were starting to ask, why did Beijing respect the wishes of Taiwanese and Hong Kong people for democracy, and not their own. Nonetheless, it was only a small number of young people who would wish to go as far as seeking a referendum such as the Taiwanese were discussing. However, the leadership feared a democratic wave which they could not control. There was the worry that democratisation would equal separatism, that they would lose Hong Kong again. And they were mindful of what had happened in Russia. After the collapse of communism there, the whole society had become disorderly, and Russia had become a second-class power.
Following the US visit of Wen Jia-bao, the Beijing leadership was strengthened. They had become more adept as playing the geopolitical power game, for example, playing up their role on the Korean peninsula. Wen had declared that he was looking for a "democratic China". Mr Ho believed that the Beijing leadership would finally adopt Western elections, but they were not prepared yet. When he was in charge of the Party school, Hu had sent a delegation to research into Social Democrats in Germany and Sweden and Russia's elections. They noted that Putin was from the KGB and that when he seized power, Western countries were critical. They knew they faced a similar challenge. However, they did not want to share the fate of the KMT in Taiwan, losing power in general election after holding it for so long.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.