Lessons the hawks have yet to learn

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 1996, 12:00am

Was China's U-turn over an invitation for the Professional Teachers' Union (PTU) to take part in the Preparatory Committee's consultations in Hong Kong a miscalculation or a deliberate attempt to divide the organisation? The twists and turns in Beijing's tolerance surprised many - not because of mainland officials' sudden change of heart in withdrawing the invitation but because of the rather exceptional gesture by China in extending it in the first place.

Given the unswerving hostility to prominent pro-democracy activists Szeto Wah and Cheung Man-kwong - also veteran leaders of the teachers' union - it was easy to be sceptical over Chinese officials' new, lenient attitude in including the PTU in the PC's consultation list.

But they did - at least for a few days before they changed their minds.

Originally, some decision-makers in Beijing were lobbied hard by moderates in Hong Kong to allow dialogue between China and the democratic voice in Hong Kong. It would only be in the best interest of China and the future Special Administrative Region (SAR), the argument went.

But surely, those rationalists in Beijing persuaded to allow the invitation were not just convinced on the grounds that there was a need for communication.

Nor is it exactly accurate to say that they were betting that Mr Szeto and his union would not accept the invitation, making it worth the risk, and boosting their PR image.

More complicated psychology is believed to have been involved. Notwithstanding China's hatred of Mr Szeto, one of China's worst enemies in Hong Kong, mainland officials ironically felt some sympathy for him and the teachers' body that he founded.

Yes, critics in the mainland camp can brand Mr Szeto as subversive in the light of his leading role in the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China; but no one dare characterise him as pro-British or pro-colonialist.

Many of those in China who know about his crusade in the early days as a social movement activist and have worked with him in the Basic Law Drafting Committee know that he is a patriot through and through.

Those mainland officials who consider the matter rationally must have felt ambivalent over how to deal with him - it is easy to slap your enemy but it's extremely unpleasant to beat your own son.

However, it is also undeniable that Mr Szeto has been extremely vocal in denouncing China's poor human rights record and blatant disregard for its people's democratic aspirations.

To resolve such a predicament, the best outcome for Beijing obviously was for Mr Szeto to abandon his hostile stance and be more accommodating to the present leadership. But mainland officials are also realistic enough to anticipate that he's stubborn enough to say no.

Analysts believe that some mainland officials did suffer from a Szeto Wah complex - the love-hate emotions they have for him - and it was because of this that there was a voice within the mainland camp in favour of extending the invitation.

Moreover, mainland officials are also fully aware that the PTU is not a fly-by-night organisation. It is a prominent teachers' union which China cannot simply ignore.

It comprises 62,000 members and throughout its 20-odd years, the PTU has always been a patriotic body.

Recently it has donated more than $10 million to China for educational projects and disaster relief.

It was a struggle for the PC leadership finally to decide to extend the invitation.

The possibility of the democratic pair actually attending and saying something hostile was taken into consideration. But those who hoped the move would work were wishing that, taking their differences into account, the democrats would be restrained enough to confine their dissent to behind closed doors. That could be tolerated, just about. Such an option was not an impossibility.

The PTU had at one stage considered a similar approach. But the option was not favoured. Leaders asserted that it would send a confusing message to members.

Three other options were also considered, including the radical approach of boycotting the consultation and the submissive one of attending the session while avoiding mention of the provisional legislature. Both were rejected.

Snubbing the consultation would effectively kill any chance of opening a dialogue with China. Refraining from talking about the provisional legislature was a non-starter which went against the leaders' consciences.

So the PTU decided that while accepting the invitation, it would also speak out against setting up the caretaker legislature.

In adopting the present approach, the PTU leadership were fully aware that Beijing might back-pedal. Mr Szeto is said to have been pessimistic right from the start that the PC leadership would actually honour its invitation. He was proved right.

To the dismay of the PC leadership, the PTU, instead of quietly accepting the invitation or turning it down, decided to attend the consultation and went as far as to hold a press conference to underscore the fact that the union would make clear its opposition on the provisional legislature plan.

It would not accept pre-conditions that all those who attend the consultation sessions should support the establishment of the legislature.

A veteran China-watcher said that China might be able to accept rational opposition, but it would definitely not tolerate provocation.

It was precisely because of the high-profile approach adopted by the PTU leadership that the PC leadership was forced to change its mind. Analysts said that, right from the beginning, the hawks in the mainland camp did not believe in the merit of inviting the PTU.

Hardliners believed the democrats were hopeless souls. The PTU's public acceptance of the invitation, while stressing disapproval of the provisional body, gave those hawks the ammunition to attack the doves in the mainland camp.

If there was any miscalculation on the part of the mainland moderates, perhaps it was their failure to anticipate that pressure from their own colleagues to reverse the lenient decision would be so strong that they would be forced to change course quickly.

Those who had lobbied for a more tolerant approach were obviously disappointed. But some also understand why the PTU responded in such an uncompromising way. Meanwhile, hardliners in the mainland camp seized the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone - undermining their moderate colleagues while trying to divide and rule local teachers.

The statement signed by 20-odd PTU members advertised in the left-wing Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao and one commercial paper denouncing the PTU leadership for failing to consult its members on the provisional legislature is evidence that there is a split within the union, no matter how small.

Whether this will become bigger, triggered by the PC consultation issue, is anybody's guess. But even though mainland officials may be keen to divide the teachers' group, Mr Szeto and the PTU are no easy opponents.

The hawks may appear to have scored a victory. However, they have lost much standing by upsetting many teachers and other ordinary citizens through their intolerance of dissent.