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Another Tiananman Square



LONDON-- There is not going to be another Tiananman Square in Hong Kong. The Chinese communists' ruling cadre may have little natural empathy for Hong Kong's political freedom but they know, whatever protests meet them after the July 1st. hand-over by Britain, that a violent clamp-down of such proportions would alienate the western world in a manner that could not be so easily repaired as it was after the events of June 4, 1989.

If Presidents Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac or Chancellor Helmut Kohl then chose to continue to be as accommodating to China's interests as they are now they would be overwhelmingly overruled by both public opinion and their legislatures.

The Beijing authorities are shrewd enough to know that, while the student protestors of Tiananman Square were naive enough to think their own mass could somehow defy and triumph over their government to the extent that they pointedly refused to accept support from workers' movements, the democratws of Hong Kong are a much more sophisticated bunch. Not only in Martin Lee's Democratic Party, the largest party in Hong Kong's elected legislature, do they have a democratic mandate, they represent a broad coalition of interest groups, of which students are only a minority.

If a second Tiananman Square is most unlikely there is, however, undoubtedly going to be a real tussle for power.

I doubt in his wildest dreams that Governor Chris Patten ever thought that the Chinese would simply swallow his democratic and human rights reforms. But what he knew he was doing--and what he has succeeded in doing--was to empower the Hong Kong people. They now have to fight their own wars. Neither Chris Patten, nor Margaret Thatcher, nor Tony Blair nor Madeleine Albright nor any of the other notables who plan to be on Hong Kong on the last day of the month to watch the Union Jack run down can fight it for them. Anything short of a repeat Tiananman Square they are effectively on their own, apart from the odd shout of encouragement from the bleachers.

This middle terrain--between total repression and total capitulation--is going to be the battle ground. And who can at the moment predict with absolute certainty where, over what, the battles will be fought and who, in the end, will prevail

Nevertheless, the signs, on balance, are propitious. The early show of toughness by governor-elect Tung Chee-hwa has already been softened. After announcing that he planned to give the police stronger powers to curb public protests and to impose a ban on the solicitation of campaign contributions from overseas he was forced to tone down the proposals in the face of loud local criticism. He also moved to occupy the high ground by announcing that the formidable number two to Chris Patten, Mrs. Anson Chan, would stay on as his deputy. He then appointed as Chief Justice the relatively young, very democratically minded, Andrew Li Kwok-nang.

If it weren't for the ominous presence of the shadow legislature that meets over the border in China every Saturday morning one could read these tea-leaves with a great deal of hope. After all Li Ruihuin, nothing less than a Beijing politburo member, not so long ago publically counselled his colleagues (I paraphrase) "not to clean the Hong Kong teapot, otherwise it wouldn't make such good tea."

But the shadow, unelected, legislature is the rub. At one minute past midnight on July 1 there will be two competing legislatures in existence--this Chinese nominat4ed one and Hong Kong's duly elected one.

The issue will not be whose interpretation of the 1984 Joint Declaration on Hong Kong with its "one country, two systems pledge" is right. There is no outside neutral arbitrator to intervene and pronounce on that, although there has been some hazy talk about Britain taking it to the World Court. It will be a straightforward battle of wills between Mr. Lee's Democrats and Governor Tung to see who will blink first.

You can place your bets. Beijing has already hedged its by promising that there will be fresh elections in a year. A reasonable bet would be that by five minutes past midnight there will be some role swapping. The shadow legislature will become the official one and the official one the shadow one. But Mr. Tung will not move to close it down, rather to sideline it as much as possible, arguing to his Chinese masters that he has already won their approval for tolerating protests and that they shouldn't risk alienating the professional middle class who will choose to make use of their foreign passports if Hong Kong's atmospherics become unpleasant.

But then in a year at election time the Democrats will find that they are once again in a strong position. Beijing will doubtless want to keep the number of fully elected seats under their already announced limit of 50%. The Democrats will push for 100%, offering as their concession a willingness to dissolve their shadow legislature. Willy-nilly, Governor Tung will find that he has the job of trying to bridge the divide. But unless Beijing has the stomach for another Tiananman Square, which it does not, Mr. Tung will be allowed to negotiate a compromise. My hunch is that it won't be too unfavorable to the Democrats.


June 4, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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