Beijing again attacks Hong Kong democrats

Posted in China , Other | 27-Feb-04 | Author: Joseph Kahn| Source: International Herald Tribune

BEIJING - China has accused Hong Kong's main opposition party of being unpatriotic and seeking to overthrow the central government in a broadside attack that raised fresh questions about whether the Communist Party is willing to tolerate political freedom in the nominally autonomous territory.

In a carefully orchestrated barrage of coverage in the state-controlled media, some Hong Kong opposition leaders were said to be leading "organizations that aim at opposing the leadership of the Communist Party and subverting the central government." Such political figures, the state media emphasized, should be excluded from holding high office in Hong Kong, a former British colony.

A harshly worded commenting in Outlook, a high-level political journal run by Xinhua, the state press agency, said people who rallied in Hong Kong in July against a proposed national security law lacked sufficient patriotism to assume leadership posts.

Some 500,000 people joined that rally, and several mainstream political groups ultimately joined in opposition to the national security law, known as Article 23, dealing a stinging defeat to Beijing and its main supporters in Hong Kong.

The threats to disqualify a potentially significant number of elected politicians in Hong Kong from holding high office marks the most direct intervention in Hong Kong affairs since China reclaimed sovereignty from the British in 1997 and promised that prosperous territory of six million people "a high degree of autonomy" for at least 50 years.

Chinese leaders have not spoken publicly about Hong Kong affairs in recent days, but they have sent an unmistakable message that they are opposed to popular calls to introduce full democracy beginning in 2007. Under the mini-constitution that governs Hong Kong, its residents are promised universal suffrage and are entitled to freely elect their legislature and chief executive as early as 2007.

But China's efforts to compel Hong Kong to institute a national security law that many in the territory viewed as repressive mobilized the opposition and helped the Democratic Party, the main opposition group, win far more votes than expected in district elections there last autumn.

That raised the prospect that the Democrats and other groups that favor open elections for all major political offices could take effective control of the Hong Kong Legislature as early as next autumn, when the number of seats up for direct election rises to half.

"Beijing is making a big political gamble that they can scare people away from voting for the Democrats and keep control of the legislature," said Wu Guoguang, a specialist in Chinese politics at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "The question is whether people will be scared or angry."

For the past six years Chinese officials have governed Hong Kong with a white glove, speaking almost exclusively through the former shipping tycoon they selected to run the territory, Tung Chee-hwa. But as demands for greater political rights grew louder and Tung fell out of favor, Beijing has taken a hands-on approach and begun using political mobilization tactics reminiscent of power struggles on the mainland.

The state media began raising questions earlier this month about whether all of Hong Kong's political leaders were patriotic enough, starting a fierce debate among the pro-democracy and pro-China camps in Hong Kong about the qualifications of true patriots.

The propaganda campaign initially focused on a 1984 address by Deng Xiaoping, the paramount Chinese leader at the time, who outlined a broad and inclusive notion of patriotism as China was negotiating with Britain for the return of Hong Kong. But now official newspaper editorial and analysis pieces have defined patriotism more succinctly as limited to those who support national security legislation.

"This is a nasty trick that was used during the Cultural Revolution," said a senior editor at a leading party-run newspaper in Beijing, referring to the long political upheaval at the end of Mao Zedong's reign.

The editor said patriotism was only a relevant standard for Hong Kong when it was still run by the British. It is now being used a tool to divide Hong Kong against itself, he said.

"No one really believes that the people in Hong Kong are plotting the overthrow of the Communist Party," he said. "This is just an excuse."

People who have been briefed about the propaganda campaign in China said they believed it was designed mainly by Zeng Qinghong, China's vice president. Zeng is a close political ally of Jiang Zemin, who as president of China oversaw the return of Hong Kong and the selection of Tung as its leader.

These people said the tone of campaign differed sharply from more conciliatory remarks on Hong Kong affairs by Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, who visited the territory last autumn. It also contradicts Beijing's muted reaction last year when the national security legislation failed to win approval.

The harsher message suggests that the Beijing leadership may not agree on how to handle Hong Kong affairs, or that those who favor a harder line against democratic reforms there are gaining the upper hand against those who favor a more moderate stance.

"It's just not true," Lau said. "I'm not a member of any pro-independence or anti-independence movement in Taiwan. I respect the wishes of Taiwan people. I have never donated money or anything to them, so you can't say I support it, and I've always said Taiwan is part of China."