Important lessons from Hong Kong

Taipei Times   March 12, 2009

By Paul Lin LO

The National People's Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference met recently. While meeting NPC representatives from Hong Kong on March 7, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (ߪ), who is in charge of affairs pertaining to Hong Kong and Macau, warned that the economic crisis was worsening and that Hong Kong had been too passive in its response.

Not surprisingly, Xi called on the Hong Kong representatives to support the Special Administrative Region's (SAR) government, which is headed by Chief Executive Donald Tsang (v).

Hong Kong commentators have said that the two meetings are venues for criticizing and monitoring the government in China. Xi, whose performance should have been monitored at these meetings, however, turned things on their head by pointing a finger at the Hong Kong representatives. Even more important is the fact that according to Hong Kongs Basic Law, Hong Kong should enjoy a high degree of autonomy in all areas aside from affairs related to diplomacy and security, and that at no level should the central government interfere in Hong Kongs autonomy.

So just what does Xi's open criticism mean for Hong Kong?

On Feb. 25, the Hong Kong government announced a budget of HK$18.8 billion (US$2.42 billion) to help solve its economic woes. Some pundits said this was too little. However, the government responded by saying that giving out money was not the best way to help the economy, but rather a short-term remedy and a way of appeasing people. Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang (T) said the government did not exclude the possibility of expanding the scope of such measures in the mid-term.

This means that the government would keep some money back in case of emergencies X if the economic situation were to worsen, for example.

During the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, John Tsang spent more than US$10 billion in governmental financial reserves to ease the damage, a measure that proved successful. From his past actions, we can clearly see that Hong Kongs leaders have more experience in handling crises than Xi.

Donald Tsang's predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa (ص), was widely criticized as being incompetent and overly reliant on Beijing. He was also famous for saying how Hong Kong would prosper as long as China prospered. However, the result of this policy was that China prospered while Hong Kong decayed, with almost 1 million people hitting the streets over security legislation and forcing Beijing to replace Tung with Donald Tsang. Patriots in Hong Kong view Tsang as a leftover of British rule, but the truth of the matter is that this British-trained civil servant is much more flexible and capable of dealing with issues than his predecessor.

Tsang has also showed himself to be more sensitive to social issues and more concerned with public opinion.

Of course, Beijing remains the source of Tsang's power and he must be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This puts him in a sticky situation, as he is forced to keep a distance from Hong Kong's "patriots", which makes it difficult for him to please all the parties involved.

Neither Tung nor Tsang have dared interfere with the independence of Hong Kong's judiciary. Beijing's insistence that Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal explain, on three separate occasions, the legal basis of its decisions clearly shows how Beijing is interfering with Hong Kongs affairs. Other examples can be seen from how Tung was forced to resign over controversies surrounding Article 23 of Hong Kongs Basic Law, or the public Radio Television Hong Kong's (RTHK) running some anti-CCP programs that were strongly criticized by patriots. Neither Tung nor Tsang dared do anything rash about the matter because they had to respect the principle of editorial autonomy at RTHK. In the end, they used financial audits to force a minor change, but they remained very careful in handling the renewal of personnel.

These show that even though CCP officials may apply pressure and tamper with Hong Kong's affairs, lower-level government officials and Hong Kong's society in general do posses a certain amount of power to keep the CCP in check. Of course, another factor in this equation is that Beijing has to make a good show for Taiwan and is therefore limited in what it can do in Hong Kong. This is one point that everybody must keep in mind when it comes to the CCP.

Just after Chinese emissary Chen Yunlin (L) visited Taiwan in November, a friend in Hong Kong asked me: "Why are you [Taiwan] being taken over by China even quicker than Hong Kong?"

This awakened an interest in drawing the differences between Hong Kong and Taiwan.

When it comes to judicial independence and respect for the media, the Taiwanese government is lagging far behind Hong Kong, despite Hong Kong having already returned to Chinese rule. This is because Hong Kong was under British rule for 150 years and as a result inherited a more complete set of social regulations. Freedom, human rights, the independence of the judiciary and administrative neutrality are ingrained in the minds of Hong Kong's civil servants. These are not things the CCP can easily remove within a short period of time.

Compared with British Hong Kong, Taiwan was ruled by the Japanese for a short period. After that, it was ruled by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which derived its style of rule from a hierarchical, Confucian concept of governance. This is why the KMT believes it owns the courts and why President Ma Ying-jeou (^E) may at times sound like he worships dictators like Chinese President Hu Jintao (JA).

Since Ma became president, government officials have literally been falling over themselves to kowtow to China.

Taiwanese must therefore be alert to the risk of a new 228 Incident as a means to eliminate Taiwanese independence, which would bring disastrous results for Taiwan. Legislators from the KMT want to expand the rights to investigate personal data, which raises the question of whether they are trying to prepare files for Taiwanese individuals to hand over to the CCP. Time is running out and if Taiwanese do not step up to the plate, it will be too late.

Paul Lin is a political commentator.