Hu Yaobang

Beijing relaxes the diplomatic tension to show off its softer side

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2005, 12:00am

The Chinese tradition of 'taking stock of the situation and alternating tension with relaxation' has been a guiding principle of the ruling class for centuries. President Hu Jintao's government appears to have taken this to heart, as exemplified by developments involving Taiwan, Hong Kong and domestic politics.

In the past year or so, the overseas media and analysts have started voicing suspicions that the president has autocratic ambitions, barely three years after he came to power. They have pointed to the mainland's crackdown on political dissent at home and the adoption of the Anti-Secession Law authorising the use of force against Taiwan if it declares independence.

But just as those concerns were mounting, the leadership started plotting a series of initiatives to show its more benign side. The tension-relaxation strategy appears to have worked in its favour both at home and abroad.

Weeks after the law was passed, Beijing undertook the historic reconciliation with Taiwan's main opposition parties, including its long-time foe, the Kuomintang. Mr Hu shook hands with KMT leaders in the Great Hall of the People in front of the international media, greatly easing global concerns sparked by passage of the law.

There will be more. After more than a decade of official silence, the president reportedly has approved plans for a series of events honouring the late party chief Hu Yaobang on the 90th anniversary of his birth, November 20. Carefully scripted ceremonies are expected to be held in the Great Hall of the People, as well as in Hunan province , where Hu Yaobang was born, and Jiangxi province , where he is buried.

The news has surprised not only overseas analysts, but also many Communist Party officials. The decision to rehabilitate Hu Yaobang is smart and symbolic, and will not only help portray Hu Jintao and his leadership as liberal minded and magnanimous, but also help expand his political base by reaching out to former supporters and sympathisers of Hu Yaobang inside and outside the party.

The move has also raised tantalising hopes that the rehabilitation of Hu Yaobang could lead to an official reassessment of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations, which were sparked by students' mourning of his death.

From Beijing's point of view, honouring Hu Yaobang is less controversial than it appears. Although the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping removed him in 1987 for being too tolerant of 'bourgeois' political views, many party members still regarded him as the most reform-minded of mainland leaders. His standing in the official history of the party is still substantial as he remained a member of the all-powerful Politburo until his death in 1989. This would help justify the proper ceremonies to honour him.

Closer to home, just days before Vice-President Zeng Qinghong's visit to Hong Kong was announced, it was revealed that Beijing would invite all legislators to visit Guangdong for two days later this month. This will be followed by the Hong Kong government's publication of its political reform package.

After several years of political tensions and strained political ties with Beijing, Mr Zeng's visit is expected to mark a turning point in the short history of the special administrative region.

Soon after the July 1 protests in 2003, President Hu described the Hong Kong issue as a new challenge for the mainland leadership and put Mr Zeng in charge of Hong Kong affairs.

In just two years, Mr Zeng has refashioned policies towards Hong Kong, reflecting his pragmatic and decisive style. The departure of Tung Chee-hwa and the ascendancy of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen have helped remove political uncertainties, while the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement and the influx of mainland tourists and money have reinforced Hong Kong's economic recovery.

On the day he arrived in Hong Kong, Mr Zeng promised to listen to the Hong Kong people and told Mr Tsang to handle sensitive issues with care. His relaxed and people-friendly manner underlines Beijing's renewed confidence in its ability to meet the Hong Kong challenge.

Yesterday's gala dinner attended by Mr Zeng and pro-democracy legislators, some of whom have been long accused of being hostile to the mainland, is a good start.

If Beijing can seek full reconciliation with the KMT, establishing some harmony with pro-democracy activists should by much easier.