By JONATHAN POWER
Britain and China, until last week, were set on what seemed an unavoidable collision course. If Beijing was holding the whip hand of divine power to do as it pleases, commencing July 1st., London, or in effect its audacious governor, Chris Patten, held the trumps of the electorate's will. Against every brutish blandishment--"a serpent, a whore and a sinner for all millenia" Beijing's foreign ministry called him at one time--he has over the last five years engineered Hong Kong's entry into the democratic community.
If Hong Kong's citizens could fill the streets for days after the Tiananmen Square massacre then one can reasonably surmise that any move to take away their own new-found liberties after July 1st.will meet with enormous resistance. Martin Lee and his United Democrats, the largest party in the reformed legislature, are not going to kowtow when Beijing tells them to. Neither is Chris Patten. He may no longer be governor but the airwaves will be his.
London and Washington may squirm and attempt to fudge and soften the edges of confrontation. Neither side wants a showdown that could throw to the wind all the bridge-building diplomacy of the last two years. But they are not free agents; public opinion will impose its constraints. When the truncheons start to flay and the bullets fly against dissenting members of the legislature, student protestors and the like, public opinion in many parts of the world will not sit still and watch it quietly on television. Only the business community in the democracies buys wholesale the Kissingerian argument of "leave well alone", that over time economic development in China will produce a more benign environment for human rights. Most politically engaged people understand instinctively that while economic growth may contribute to political liberalisation, it does only if there is a built-in dialectic between the pragmatists and the would-be democrats. That didn't exist in Hitler's Germany and it hasn't existed in China since Tiananmen Square.
Before Deng died the betting in Hong Kong was that China would go to the line--even if it meant unsettling, even sacrificing Hong Kong as the economic power house of southern China. So unyielding was Deng in his later years on the political dominance of the communist party, Beijing's leadership would have felt duty bound to play chicken right up, and beyond, the moment of collision. Only as the Hong Kong elite fled to their refuges in Canada, Australia and the U.S. and as the great investment flood faltered would the regime have started to count the cost and make some compromises.
With Deng dead the Chinese leadership is already beginning to look different. Tomorrow IS another day.
This, I suspect, is what Patten always gambled on. It was why Margaret Thatcher and John Major wanted a wily, risk-taking, politician to be the last governor of Hong Kong rather than, as before, a tradition-bound civil servant. Patten has navigated Hong Kong policy almost single-handed, often against Foreign Office advice in London and over the protests of his predecessors. He has not had much help or support from Bill Clinton and even less from European capitals. But his vision of the era of flexibility that would be ushered in once Deng was dead (now shared increasingly by the U.S. State Department's top China policy-maker, Winston Lord), together with his Catholic antipathy to communism and sensitivity to human rights, drove him forward.
The next 4 months will be telling. There will be much jostling for power in Beijing and there will be an attempt by the conservatives to neutralize any attempt to liberalise either at home or abroad. But the dominant trend in Beijing policy is towards economic and political pragmatism. The pragmatists do not want to do anything that might kill or maim the Hong Kong goose that lays the golden eggs. Moreover, they can now demonstrate unequivocally what many Chinese never quite believed until rather recently, that the British are indeed going to hand over Hong Kong on July 1st.--and with its treasure undepleted.
The pragmatists can also play the Taiwan card. A reunified Taiwan is a prize even greater than Hong Kong. Taiwan too is democratic, even more so than Hong Kong. If there is ever to be unity it will have to be on terms that keeps Taiwanese democracy intact. Thus the pragmatists know that they have no choice but to accept democracy will be practised in some of their provinces. (Interestingly, and too often under- reported, democracy is now being introduced in many rural areas in China itself.)
Washington's role is going to be crucial over the next few months. Will Clinton like Patten be seen to have the courage of his convictions? Any faltering will be used by Beijing's conservatives to drive a wedge between themselves and the pragmatists and between Washington and Patten. Stand firm and Beijing will probably capitulate, at least on the crucial issues of preserving Hong Kong's elected legislative council and the Bill of Rights.
February 26, 1997, LONDON
Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER
and e-mail: JonatPower@aol.com
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