By Mark L. Clifford
Half-a-million people marching in the streets would be a big deal in any city. But in Hong Kong, it's a political earthquake -- one that the Hong Kong government would be foolish to ignore. That's precisely what happened on July 1, as some 500,000 peaceful protestors, largely middle-class professionals and their families, voiced their dissent in scorching heat against so-called Article 23, the new national security legislation for governing Hong Kong.
Beijing wants to see the legislation enacted, which sets out the ground rules for the city's governance as part of China. But as the demonstration clearly showed, Hong Kong's people remain leery. This protest was rivaled in size only by the territory's million-strong demonstration following the June, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. July 1 was the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China from its British colonial masters, yet the demonstrators sent a clear message that this was no time to celebrate.
The turnout was a protest against Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and a government that most people find out of touch and unresponsive. More than the opinion polls, more than the earnest speeches and op-ed pieces by politicians, this outpouring showed just how dramatically Hong Kong's leadership has lost the confidence of its citizens. Organizers had hoped for 100,000. But in the end, nearly 1 of every 10 Hong Kong residents -- the territory's population is just 6.8 million -- took part.
When I moved to Hong Kong in 1992, many businessmen tried to tell me that this city's residents didn't care about politics. It wasn't true then -- though the tycoons may have believed it. Three years earlier, the Tiananmen protests had decisively shown that Hong Kong people are more than money-obsessed traders. The city has become even more politicized since then. If Tung & Co. are smart, they'll realize their task now is to accommodate their citizens' political demands.
First, the government should amend the controversial national-security legislation. Although the bill is scheduled for a vote on July 9, it's not too late to make concessions. The legislation is mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, the quasi-constitution that governs the handover of the territory to Chinese rule and its governance until 2047. But a wide range of critics have attacked the legislation as flawed. Fear is widespread in the community that the proposed law means China is strengthening its grip on Hong Kong.
If the government is truly concerned with winning back the people's confidence, it could start by introducing amendments that would curtail police powers under the new law. So far, the government has remained silent. Critics see stage-managing in the consultation process, and the manner in which the legislation is being rushed toward enactment fuels suspicions that the Article 23 bill marks the real handover to mainland Chinese rule. If, as the government has said, the harsher measures contained in Article 23 will be used only as a last resort, what's the harm in making them less draconian from the get-go?
Article 23 was rewritten in the wake of the Tiananmen uprising because Beijing worried that Hong Kong would become a base of subversion. The irony is that the legislation itself has become a source of political instability.
If Tung truly wants to seize the political initiative, he could try something even more dramatic once he has amended Article 23. He could wholeheartedly embrace those parts of the Basic Law that deal with Hong Kong's greater democratization. It would be a political masterstroke.
The Basic Law repeatedly states that the aim of Hong Kong's political system is universal suffrage. As it is now, only 24 of 60 Legislative Council (Legco) members are elected through direct elections. That number will rise to 30 next year. But come 2008, Hong Kong under the Basic Law will have the right to elect all of its Legco members directly. In 2012, the Chief Executive can be similarly elected.
Yet, direct elections are an option under the Basic Law -- not a requirement. Given Tung's go-slow policy on democratization, suspicion is rife that the government won't follow through on this.
Asia has precedents for a bold stroke. In June, 1987, following fierce anti-government demonstrations, South Korea's ruling party presidential candidate Roh Tae Woo unveiled a dramatic package that set South Korea on the road to democracy. The move paid off for Roh politically. He won the presidency in that December's election. Today, South Korea has emerged as one of Asia's most vibrant democracies and has strengthened its position as one of the region's most dynamic economies.
If Tung were to study such history, he would see that he can remake Hong Kong's future in a positive way. He could stand up for the people's desire to be the masters of their own destiny in the post-colonial era. Tung should seize the moment. Short of stepping down, as increasing numbers of his critics want him to do, it's one of the few actions he could take to secure his legacy.
Clifford is Hong Kong bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his China Journal column every week, only on BW Online. Clifford is Hong Kong bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his China Journal column every week, only on BW Online. Contact him at email@example.com
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht