Rule of Law

Liberty endures in two-system China

(June 7, 2010) While China still often treats dissent with a mailed fist, the lesson of Hong Kong over the last 13 years is that Beijing is also capable of using the velvet glove, writes Gideon Rachman in The Financial Times.

The Chinese government cannot tolerate dissent. The Chinese people care about economics not politics. The Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing is now largely forgotten.

Those three statements are a rough summary of the current conventional wisdom about China. And yet, last Friday night, I witnessed an event that undermined all three ideas. More than 100,000 people gathered in a park in Hong Kong to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen protests on June 4 1989. In the middle of the Hong Kong demonstration was a large gold-coloured replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” statue, carried by the students in Tiananmen Square and provocatively similar to America’s Statue of Liberty. The Hong Kong demonstrators lit candles to commemorate the dead of 1989 and, as one speaker put it, “for all those people on the mainland of China, who cannot demonstrate tonight”.

The fact that so many residents of Hong Kong turned out showed an impressive commitment to democratic ideals. But the fact that they were allowed to demonstrate was impressive for a different reason. It showed that the government of China can deal with dissent with subtlety and restraint.

I was last in Hong Kong in 1997, on the famous and fateful night on which Britain handed back control of the territory to China. Apart from the pomp and ceremony, my main memory is of the torrential rain.

Back in 1997, my basic assumption was that the Chinese government’s promise to Hong Kong of “one country, two systems” would last as long as a flimsy umbrella in a Hong Kong tornado. It was hard to believe that the thugs who had sent the tanks into Tiananmen Square would really allow Hong Kong’s journalists to keep criticising the Chinese government, or would resist the temptation to control the courts. But, in fact, the Chinese government really does seem to have let Hong Kong preserve its freedoms.

The annual Tiananmen commemoration presses hard on the most sensitive spot in modern Chinese history – but it is tolerated, and it is not an isolated example. The Hong Kong press is still free; the courts are still independent. Local newspapers such as Hong Kong’s Apple Daily regularly carry vigorous criticism of Beijing. The Falun Gong spiritual movement – banned in mainland China as a dangerous cult – has had its right to demonstrate in Hong Kong protected by the local courts.

Over lunch in Hong Kong last week, I met Martin Lee, who for many years was the face of Hong Kong’s democracy movement and a fierce critic of the Chinese government. I reminded Mr Lee that we had last met in 1996, shortly before the handover. I had taken him to a fancy restaurant in London and had been surprised (and mildly embarrassed) to find that he would consume only a cup of water and a bread roll. “I was getting myself used to a prison diet,” he remarked – and I don’t think he was joking. Shortly before the handover, it seemed entirely possible that the likes of Mr Lee would end up in jail.

Thirteen years after the handover, Mr Lee was willing to eat baked oysters and pronounce himself “pleasantly surprised” by how things have turned out. But he argues that the preservation of Hong Kong’s freedoms has as much to do with the determination of local people, as with the forbearance of the government in Beijing.

In 2003 the local Hong Kong government, working with the central authorities in China, put forward draft legislation for draconian “national security” laws that potentially threatened freedom-of-speech and association in Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of local citizens took to the streets to protest – and the government backed down and withdrew the legislation.

Mr Lee is far from complacent. Like many in Hong Kong he is deeply dissatisfied with the government’s proposals to introduce electoral democracy to the territory. The idea is that, from 2017, Hong Kong’s chief executive will be elected by universal suffrage. But the snag is that all candidates will first have to be approved by an official nominations committee. Hong Kong’s democracy movement is justifiably sceptical that the Chinese government has any real intention of allowing Hong Kong genuinely to select its own leader.

Yet while Hong Kong is still some way from electoral democracy, it has retained many of the other freedoms of a liberal society – in particular independent courts and media.

Mr Lee worries that, without a freely elected government, all of Hong Kong’s other freedoms are vulnerable to being suddenly swept away by a capricious decision made in Beijing.

There is plenty of reason to fear the intolerance of the Chinese government. On some issues, such as Tibet and Taiwan, official Chinese policy and rhetoric remain strident and unyielding. In mainland China, dissidents continue to be locked up – Liu Xiaobo, a prominent human rights activist, was sentenced to 11 years in prison late last year.

But while China still often treats dissent with a mailed fist, the lesson of Hong Kong over the last 13 years is that Beijing is also capable of using the velvet glove.

China still has a dangerous and uncertain political path to tread, if it is gradually to move towards a freer political system. In Hong Kong, last Friday night, I got a tantalising glimpse of what that freer China of the future might look like.

Gideon Rachman, The Financial Times, June 07, 2010

Categories: Rule of Law

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