Civil Liberties Within Limits After 12 Years of Beijing Rule

June 1, 2009
Memo From Hong Kong

Civil Liberties Within Limits After 12 Years of Beijing Rule

HONG KONG — It was a raucous display of free speech outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council
last week: construction workers demanding increased spending on public
works, retirees agitating for heftier pensions, and legislators,
wearing black T-shirts printed with tanks, calling on the Beijing
government to apologize for the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square two
decades ago.

In the 12 years since it passed from British to Chinese rule, Hong
Kong has remained a bastion of civil liberties unknown in mainland China, under an arrangement dubbed “one country, two systems.”

The result has been the continuation of a freewheeling press, an
independent judiciary and a well-oiled bureaucracy. On Thursday, tens
of thousands are expected to turn out for a candlelight vigil in
Victoria Park here to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown,
in which hundreds of students advocating democracy were killed. In the
rest of China, any mention of the events at Tiananmen Square has been
banned in the news media or public discourse.

But many democracy advocates and civil libertarians here are
increasingly anxious about whether laissez-faire Hong Kong can maintain
its independence from Beijing’s authoritarian grip and its distinct
identity as an amalgam of Western and Chinese sensibilities.

Last year, Beijing postponed direct elections — to 2017 for the
chief executive and 2020 for the full legislature — and its critics say
China is wielding a heavier hand in Hong Kong’s affairs.

A growing roster of overseas visitors whose politics irritate
Beijing have been denied entry to Hong Kong, and pro-China legislators
have blocked efforts to include an uncensored account of Tiananmen
Square in high school textbooks.

Longtime advocates of democracy like Martin Lee warn that China is chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomy by fiat or by co-opting business leaders and politicians.

On Saturday, Mr. Lee, the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party,
disclosed that he had been the target of an assassination plot that he
said the authorities foiled last August. He said the men were arrested
not long after he wrote an editorial accusing China of failing to live
up to its pledge to improve human rights.

“If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out right
away,” Mr. Lee said during an interview in his office overlooking the
High Court. “But if you put the frog in warm water and cook it slowly,
it doesn’t jump. We are being slowly cooked in Hong Kong, but hardly
anyone is noticing.”

Mr. Lee and other democracy advocates have worried for years about
Beijing’s expanding influence here. But in advance of the 20th
anniversary of Tiananmen — and of the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s
return to China in 1997 — they are concerned about a new willingness by
public officials to openly back the mainland’s view. They say that is a
jarring development in a city where a million people took to the
streets in the summer of 1989 and where protests have been held every
June 4 since then.

When asked last week if he supported exonerating the students who occupied Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Donald Tsang,
told legislators that the episode was best forgotten. “This is
something that happened a long time ago,” he said. “The national
economy has grown and brought prosperity to Hong Kong.” He added that
he thought his view “represents the opinion of Hong Kong people in
general.”

Other local officials aligned with Beijing have gone further,
claiming that no one died during the crackdown, or that an armed
response was warranted because student leaders were planning to kill
government soldiers. And this spring, Ayo Chan, the president of Hong
Kong University’s student union, obliquely blamed the protesters for
provoking the violence in Tiananmen.

Such statements do not go unchallenged, however. Angry students
promptly voted Mr. Chan out of office, and Hong Kong’s chief executive
was forced to apologize. A poll by Hong Kong University
last week suggested that public sympathy for the Tiananmen protesters
was high, with nearly 70 percent of Hong Kong residents saying the
Chinese government had erred in its handling of the demonstrations.

But those who closely watch the political culture here say
reunification with China has begun to slowly alter Hong Kong’s unique
ethos, even if the changes are hard to quantify and support for
democracy is still strong. Numbers tell part of the story: a decline in
the number of Western expatriates — about 100,000 fewer since 1997 —
coinciding with a growing presence of mainlanders.

Last year, nearly 17 million mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong,
compared with just over 2 million in 1997. Shifting demographics have
had an even greater impact on local universities. More than half the
postgraduate students studying here are from the mainland, up from
barely one-third in 2003.

Like many other entrepreneurs here, Ronnie Chan, a billionaire
whose company, Hang Lung Properties, has expanded into the mainland,
argues that Hong Kong can flourish only through closer ties to China.
In an interview last week, he said Hong Kong was far freer today than
it ever was under the British. If anything, he said, society could use
a bit more restraint, especially when it comes to the media. “People
were afraid the media would be curbed, but it’s gone wild and become
irresponsible,” said Mr. Chan, 59, who attended college and graduate
school in the United States.

Groups like the Hong Kong Journalists Association take a different
view, saying the number of media outlets willing to take on topics that
might anger Beijing has been shrinking. Mak Yin-ting, a freelance
journalist and former chairwoman of the association, said the owners of
more than half of Hong Kong’s media outlets — many of whose owners have
business interests in China — have been given advisory posts to the
National People’s Congress and People’s Political Consultative
Conference, which rubber-stamp decisions made by the Communist Party.

The result, Ms. Mak said, is that some reporters engage in
self-censorship, while editors sometimes bury stories that might be
unflattering to Beijing. “When your boss is a delegate to the National
People’s Congress,” she said, “then you know it’s better not to
criticize China too loudly.”

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