Donald Tsang

Beijing's shift in strategy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am

After 16 years of ostracising members of the pro-democracy camp, Beijing is finally adjusting its policy towards Hong Kong.

The communist government is using its tried-and-true strategy of forging a united front, such as with its old enemy, the nationalist party in Taiwan, and in Hong Kong with democrats, whom only last year it had excoriated as 'traitors'.

This is a significant readjustment of the policy vis-a-vis Hong Kong. Previously, Beijing had tried to isolate Hong Kong's democrats by uniting with all the other parties. However, this did not work because the democrats had the support of a majority of the electorate.

Now, it is likely that Beijing will try a more sophisticated tactic, that of divide and rule. By no longer trying to exclude democrats from functions such as the dinner for Vice-President Zeng Qinghong on Sunday night, the central government is allowing divisions to appear within democratic ranks.

The democrats were disappointed that Mr Zeng, in his speech, did not respond to their plea for universal suffrage. Instead, the vice-president called for all parties to be 'generous for the common good' by 'advancing prosperity through harmony', words that can be interpreted as a rejection of their request.

While Mr Zeng was invariably good-humoured and easygoing during his trip, it was obvious that his intention was more to speak than to listen.

While visiting a working man's family, for example, the vice-president spent almost the entire time delivering a monologue, urging the public to give more support to the new chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

Ironically, the Chinese leader clearly was much more interested in listening to the views of capitalists than to those of workers.

He had breakfast with Hong Kong's wealthiest man, Li Ka-shing, and Mr Li's two sons. He also met with a good number of Hong Kong's other business moguls, including Lee Shau-kee, chairman of Henderson Land, and Walter Kwok Ping-sheung and his brother, Thomas Kwok Ping-kwong, chairman and vice-chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties.

Mr Zeng, who is responsible for the Hong Kong portfolio in the central government, is credited with making a conciliatory gesture by agreeing to let Mr Tsang lead a delegation of Hong Kong legislators later this month to Guangdong, including all members of the pro-democracy camp. This is a significant move, since many of the democrats have not been allowed onto the mainland since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

On one level, what this means is that the central government at long last is giving official recognition to the Hong Kong legislature. In the past, the Chinese government would not acknowledge the Legislative Council as an integral part of the government.

The democrats hope that the central government will do more than this. They hope that senior leaders will actually hold a dialogue with them, but it is not by any means clear that this is what Beijing has in mind.

What is evident is that Beijing would like to see a reduction in controversy in Hong Kong or, put another way, an increase in social harmony. But its way of bringing this about may not be to accommodate the democrats, but rather to neutralise them by gradually reducing their popular support.

Senior leaders apparently hope to do this by winning public support for their policies of revitalising the Hong Kong economy without giving significant ground on political reform.

This is not to say that Beijing is necessarily insincere in its approach to the democrats. It is merely to say that China's leaders have not shown their cards yet - and it is too early to assume that everything is going to be hunky dory from here on out.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator