Kinder and gentler: China turns on the charm as 1997 approaches

China has softened its rhetoric towards pro-democracy advocates in an effort to smooth the transition of Hong kong from British to Chinese rule on Jul 1, 1997. Chinese officials have become more cordial towards Gov Chris Patten. The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has served to unite the colony.
For nearly a year, Britain and China had struggled to reach agreement on how best to mark Hong Kong’s return to mainland rule next July 1. The problem? Chinese officials wanted Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten left off the guest list as punishment for a controversial political reform package he initiated in 1992. In early September, they had a change of heart. During talks in Beijing with a visiting British delegation, Lu Ping, head of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said Patten would be welcome to take part in the ceremony and that he would gladly shake the governor’s hand.

With visions of Patten and Lu swapping bons mots still dancing in their heads, Hong Kong residents were treated to an even more astonishing sight the following week: pro-democracy activists Szeto Wah and Albert Ho, both branded subversives by the mainland government, entering the offices of the New China News Agency, Beijing’s de facto embassy in the colony. The pair had been invited inside to deliver a petition urging China to stand firm in its dispute with Japan over the tiny Diaoyu Islands, an issue that virtually all Chinese agree on. The brief get-together didn’t get beyond small talk, but was seen as an encouraging sign nonetheless. “It wasn’t a dialogue, but it was a small step forward,” Ho says.

A dialogue may well be the next step. After almost a decade spent demonizing its opponents across the border, China is now pursuing a kinder, gentler policy on Hong Kong. The harsh rhetoric of years past is gone, replaced by soothing words that are plainly meant to reassure jittery Hong Kong residents about their future. And nothing has done more to put them at ease than Beijing’s effort to reach out to the colony’s most popular political party, the Democrats. How long China’s charm offensive will last is anyone’s guess, but it is welcome news in a city grown tired of raucous debate.

The change in policy was unveiled in rather dramatic fashion last month. During a speech in Beijing, Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen invited the Democrats to join the 400-member committee that will soon select Hong Kong’s post-1997 chief executive and provisional legislature. Qian also opened the door to talks with the Democrats, whose backing for the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square had long infuriated the mainland regime. “As long as they support the resumption of sovereignty and hope for a smooth transition, we can sit down and discuss the Hong Kong question to make things better,” Qian said. Last week, Qian gave similarly upbeat assurances about the handover to Canadian officials as he visited Vancouver and Ottawa.

According to Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a leading China-watcher for the English-language South China Morning Post, the Chinese leadership formalized the new, more pragmatic approach during its annual summer get-together in the northern resort town of Beidaihe. Lam says that while resting by the beach, members of the Politburo agreed to put ideology on the back burner and concentrate instead on keeping Hong Kong’s economy steady through the transition. Proponents of the new strategy were bolstered a few weeks later when former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who commands enormous respect in Beijing, urged the mainland side to show Hong Kong a more tolerant face in the coming months.

One China-watcher not surprised by the shift in tone is Michael Yahuda, who teaches international relations at the London School of Economics and wrote the recently published book Hong Kong: China’s Challenge. Yahuda says a turbulent transition would have damaging consequences for China. He believes the olive branch to the Democrats reflects a recognition on the part of the Chinese that the stakes in Hong Kong are huge, especially with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, 92, living on borrowed time. “They are obviously very concerned about having a stable situation leading up to the succession and the next national party congress [in the fall of 1997]. That means taking a tighter line in China and a somewhat softer line in Hong Kong.”

The Democrats, however, remain wary. Party chairman Martin Lee has requested a meeting with Qian and other senior officials but isn’t sure that the recent overtures are all that sincere. “I suppose they must think it’s important to do some PR work,” he says. “It’s good for Hong Kong people, good for the transfer of sovereignty, and good for the outside world. It can’t do China’s leaders any harm, but whether it will do Hong Kong any good is unclear. Will they listen? Will they allow themselves to be persuaded? The test of the pudding comes soon.”

But the Democrats are also reacting cautiously because they fear China may simply be trying to divide its critics in the colony. If so, the ploy may be working. Christine Loh, an independent legislator who sides with the Democrats on most issues, has met several times with representatives of the New China News Agency and has requested permission to travel to Beijing to consult with officials there. Loh’s efforts have met with criticism from others in the pro-democracy camp, but she sees no alternative: “We’re going to be one country. If you want to be in politics, you’d better talk to them.”

In the meantime, Lee and his colleagues have spurned Qian’s invitation to join the selection committee (5,880 Hong Kong residents were nominated for the 340 seats still available). To take part, the Democrats would have to back China’s decision to replace the legislative council, elected last year under the Patten scheme, with an appointed provisional legislature. This they are unwilling to do. If Beijing goes ahead with its plan to unseat the legislature and hold new elections under different rules, the Democrats plan to mount a legal challenge. Lee, a prominent barrister, is confident that the courts will declare the provisional legislature to be in violation of Hong Kong law; whether that will matter after July 1 is another issue.

Some analysts question how much any of the latest manoeuvring matters. The Democrats, among others, consider the selection committee and provisional legislature to be little more than window dressing; the important decisions, such as the appointment of the post-1997 chief executive, will be taken in Beijing. The announcement this month that Chief Justice T .L. Yang would step down in order to run for the top job did nothing to convince skeptics that a bona fide election is about to take place. As they see it, China has already settled on shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa and is simply letting the “campaign” play out because it wants Hong Kong residents to think the process has some legitimacy.

Even so, the controversy over the disputed islands has brought a rare sense of unity to the colony. It may be that the intense reaction in Hong Kong-12,000 people marched to the New China News Agency early last week, and there were scuffles at Japanese department stores-has less to do with Japan than it does with 1997. As the British prepare to withdraw from a piece of China they have held for 155 years, Chinese nationalism is rising on both sides of the border. The dispute over the islands won’t resolve the many issues that still divide China’s leaders and their soon-to-be compatriots, but it has served as a powerful reminder that for all its Western gloss, Hong Kong is a Chinese city through and through.


If there is anything that can unite the world’s Chinese, it is a dispute over China’s territory-especially a dispute with Japan. Last week, ethnic Chinese protesters in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and Vancouver, as well as officials in Beijing, were up in arms over Japan’s claim to a tiny group of rocks- islands is almost too grand a word-in the East China Sea. Behind the anger were the long-lasting memories of Japanese wartime atrocities in China-and oil.

What Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyus are eight outcroppings between Taiwan and Okinawa that Japan took over in 1895, when it colonized Taiwan. After the Second World War, the United States gained control. It turned over the group to Japan in 1972, along with Okinawa. China has protested ever since. In July, Japanese rightists built a lighthouse on one of the outcroppings, angering the Chinese anew. When, in early September, a Japanese patrol boat chased a Taiwan fishing boat from the area-effectively putting muscle into Tokyo’s claim-East Asian streets erupted. Last week, on the 65th anniversary of Japan’s 1931 invasion of China, there were more demonstrations in Hong Kong and Taipei, as well as Canada. Protesters in Vancouver handed visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen a 10,000-name petition. Beijing, ever worried about street protests getting out of hand, kept a lid on public outpourings. But it has made clear it wants title to the rocks. In the economic zone around them may lie more than 10 billion barrels of oil, a resource that both Japan and China badly need.

Add Comment