By Bruce Einhorn With the Hong Kong government in disarray following the resignations of key officials last week, the 500,000 demonstrators who turned out on July 1 have managed what the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and other Chinese protestors over the years couldn't: This is the first group to succeed without suffering a terrible crackdown from Beijing since Mao Zedong established the People's Republic in October, 1949.
By virtue of the huge turnout -- given that Hong Kong's population is only 6.8 million people, a half-million people in the streets was significant -- the demonstrators caused acute embarrassment to the government of Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing's hand-picked chief executive of the Hong Kong government. For the moment, the protesters have derailed Tung's plans to push through unpopular anti-sedition legislation that Beijing wants. But the protests also accomplished a third result: On July 16, they forced the resignations of two of Tung's most trusted advisers, Financial Secretary Antony Leung and Security Secretary Regina Ip.
Ip's resignation had to be particularly exhilarating for protesters. She was the government official most closely identified with the legislation surrounding Article 23 anti-sedition laws that frightened so many Hong Kong people. She made no secret of her disdain for the laws' critics. A few months ago, she declared that democracy was responsible for the rise of Hitler and the genocide of European Jewry. Ip was disliked and should've gone long ago.
CENSORED PRESS. Leung had little to do with Article 23. But early this year the former J.P. Morgan banker had been caught in what looked to city residents like self-dealing. He purchased a new car just before unveiling a tax on the purchase of new cars. Despite the uproar that followed once the news got out, Tung initially refused to let Leung resign. But after July 1, with even Tung's supporters in the business community deserting him and demanding a government shakeup, Leung finally did the right thing and left.
Not that you would know any of this if you had to rely on the Chinese press. The official China Daily, the Beijing government's English-language newspaper, reported Ip's and Leung's resignations without any hint of the real reason behind them. The paper's front-page article simply said Ip stepped down for "personal reasons." As for Leung, the paper reported only his assertion that now was "a good time" to quit because he had accomplished so much of his work.
It's not surprising that government censors should prevent the China Daily from telling anything close to the real story, of course. But the censorship does point out how little things have changed in China under a new government in Beijing. After the SARS outbreak became global news, much talk was heard of the new openness of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who had only recently taken up their jobs as replacements to President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. After all, the new leaders sacked the mayor of Beijing and the Health Minister for covering up the SARS epidemic, and they allowed the Chinese press to report more aggressively about the disease.
OUT-OF-TOUCH. Those certainly looked like reformist moves. But the government was merely waging a propaganda campaign to convince the world -- and its own population -- that it was finally acting responsibly and confronting the outbreak. When it comes to news that makes the government uncomfortable, like the movement against its Hong Kong deputy, the rules are unchanged.
What's surprising to me is the pro-Beijing chords still being struck by some of the July 1 demonstrators. When I interviewed him following the march, Martin Lee, the former chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party and a prominent Beijing critic in the former British colony, expressed admiration for Hu. So, too, did others who marched (see BW, 7/21/03, "'A Resounding "No" to Mr. Tung'" and "'This Is Something to Celebrate'").
Why the admiration for Beijing's leaders? One reason is that praising them is a way of damning Tung. Hong Kong's leader is so out-of-touch that even communists from Beijing seem to have a better feel for the city's people.
TRY AGAIN LATER?I think many July 1 protestors probably also appreciate the way Beijing's leaders haven't intervened to crack down on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. In the run-up to the July 1, 1997, handover, many people feared for the worst, with antigovernment protesters encountering People's Liberation Army troops in the streets of Hong Kong. This time, the soldiers stayed in their barracks, just a short walk away, as the protestors marched.
Surely, the fight over Article 23 isn't over. While two of his leading Cabinet members have quit, Tung is still in office. Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reports that Hu says the government is "extremely concerned" about what has been happening in Hong Kong. Tung met with Hu and Premier Wen in Beijing over the weekend, and it appears that his two superiors have given him orders to push ahead with Article 23 legislation anyway. So, while Beijing has displayed admirable restraint so far, it's unclear whether the regime will continue to be so patient.
A few months from now, after passions have died down, Tung may try once again to push an Article 23 bill through the city's legislature. Or Beijing's leaders may still find the turmoil in Hong Kong too threatening to continue. Further tensions may lie ahead. But for now, the most effective antigovernment movement under communist rule is getting results. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online