Life after Tiananmen SquareBy JACKIE SAM, Features Editor, The Hongkong Standard on 27 July 1989
|(Hong Kong Economic Journal)|
THE ARTIST laid out four chamber pots in Victoria Park, Hongkong’s largest urban park, and invited Sunday strollers to defecate into them. As the large crowd laughed and giggled away, he dropped his pants and accepted his own invitation.
The chamber pots represented China’s four cardinal principles of socialism, Communist Party leadership, dictatorship of the proletariat and Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought.
The artist would have gone all the way had a policeman not ordered him to put his pants on. He was not arrested and will probably try some other stunt another weekend.
Hardly a week goes by without the lunatic fringe pulling off a political stunt. No day passes without someone publicly demanding “Democracy now!”
This is Hongkong politicking at a frantic pace – without any sense of direction and no vision of the future. Worse, there is no sensible leadership in sight. The problem is compounded by a rising political consciousness among the six million people.
Hardly a week goes by without the lunatic fringe pulling off a political stunt. No day passes without someone publicly demanding “Democracy now!”. This is Hongkong politicking at a frantic pace – without any sense of direction, and no vision of the future.
The rude awakening came just before the tanks clattered into Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the early hours of June 4.
But for over 150 years under benign colonial rule, local leadership was neither needed nor encouraged. Only compradores were co-opted, both to give legitimacy to the system and to advise British bureaucrats on the ways of the Chinese. At most, they represented local business, largely Shanghainese interests.
Senior Executive Councillor (Exco) Dame Lydia Dunn and Senior Legislative Councillor Allen Lee Peng-fei, who is also an Exco member, are the largest inductees into this colonial order. Both have extensive business interests and both have family roots in Shanghai.
Dame Lydia is too closely identified with British interests to be able to offer credible leadership to a population imbued with a new-found sense of Chineseness. In any case, she does not seem interested in any significant role beyond the early 1990s.
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Mr Lee, still harbouring some post-1997 ambitions in spite of the Tiananmen massacre, is also identified with British interests. Once touted as “the Lee Kuan Yew of Hongkong”, he has not tried to distance himself from Whitehall’s interests, though more statesmanlike in Sino-Hongkong affairs.
As Hongkong moves inexorably into China’s fold, the Whitehall luggage will be a liability. But this late in the day, politics remains at the parish-pump level, horizons remain narrow and naivete prevails. So the so-called liberals or democrats and the lunatic fringe who make the most noise have a field day.
This feature of Hongkong’s political landscape dominates the media, is the most exciting for recent tertiary institution graduates and is both the hope and bane of the Westernised elite. It is dominated by two men, Queen’s Counsel Martin Lee Chu-ming and trade unionist-school principal Szeto Wah.
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Martin Lee is a very successful barrister, an articulate member of the Legislative Council, staunchly anti-communist, and idealistic to the point of arrogance. Like Dame Lydia, hs is a darling of the Western media. But his definition of democracy has not gone beyond the immediate introduction of universal franchise, and his disdain for the rough and tumble of grassroots politics makes him a poor leader.
Szeto Wah was previously suspect in the eyes of the expatriate community and the local Westernised elite. A good organiser, politically more astute than Martin Lee but with a limited knowledge of English, he was regarded as part of China’s united front on the colony. Until the student demonstrations and the June 4 massacre, he was more accommodating towards China than Martin Lee was.
Both men have spent months trying, without success, to set up a political party embracing all liberal and vested interest group.
In the past two years, these “liberals’ or “democrats” have etched out certain characteristics which will be very hard for them to eradicate in the coming years. First, no one wants to follow; everyone claims to be leader or spokesman. The result is endless squabbling, both in private and in public. They are divided by personal traits, social standing, wealth or lack of it, attitudes towards China and Britain, and education.
Secondly, this part of the political landscape is littered with pressure groups representing minority interests and mostly started for apolitical reasons. Except for a handful, they ate single-issue groups concerned with problems such as pollution, recovery of payments from bankrupt travel agencies, leaky roofs in public housing of conservancy. Their umbrella organisation, the Joint Committee for the Promotion of Democratic Government (JCPDG), embraces 101 groups.
The great majority represent only a handful of non-paying members, usually a dozen people. Most groups want to retain their separate identities while demanding an equal voice in the bigger issues. Most have about 200 members on whom little or no discipline can be imposed.
As the demand for greater political participation grows, the weaknesses of these pressure groups become more evident. They are locked into a pressure group mentally, devoting all their energies to one issue and lapsing into total inactivity till the next issue crops up.
The umbrella organisation, JCPDG, and the newly-established Hongkong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China cannot focus on anything beyond two weeks. As one academic puts it: “Anything beyond a fortnight means trouble. They start to argue, split hairs and disintegrate. So they plan rallies, seminars, pop shows and get everyone to focus on the immediate task to create an illusion of unity.” But on the vital issue of creating a party, unity of purpose and resolve continues to elude them.
Just before the student demonstrations in China, these groups, including Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, were being dismissed as irrelevant to the whole political process.
When the protests broke out, Martin Lee and Szeto Wah seized the issue to revive their “democratic” movement.
For about a month, they wallowed in unrivalled poplarity [sic]. They got carries away. Szeto Wah and some of his close associates called for the overthrow of the Chinese leadership, publicly exulting in financial aid they had given to students in China and the “underground” groups set up to whisk to safety student leaders on China’s wanted list.
Emotions over those demonstrations have died down and many people are now accusing these democrats, especially Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, of putting Hongkong in danger. More internal squabbling, more public rallies and provocative stunts must be expected.
All these activities are worrying to the local business community. That is why they have been quietly applauding a recent People’s Daily editorial denouncing Martin Lee and Szeto Wah as “counter-revolutionaries” and warning Hongkong people against meddling in China’s internal affairs if they want their “one country, two systems” after June 1997.
While emotions ran high in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre and Martin Lee and Szeto Wah hogged the limelight, conservative elements kept a low profile. They are beginning to speak out again. Some observers believe these conservatives were behind the People’s Daily editorial.
The conservatives are as divided as the democrats or liberals are. But at least they have a vision of the future and are less inclined to quarrel in public. What they seek is simply a stable Hongkong, a timid, obedient and hard-working population, and a free hand to make as much money as possible – with China as a full partner in a Hongkong Inc.
The Tiananmen massacre has given an impetus to faster political reforms before 1997. The democrats or liberals say that a quickened pace will lead to the setting up of a representative government before sovereignty returns to China. This, they insist, will stop Beijing from interfering in Hongkong’s affairs.
China’s united front network, built up over the past 50 years, is intact, though its propaganda arms, the Wen Wei Po and the Ta Kung Pao, faltered during the month-long demonstrations and immediately after the massacre. Both newspapers are now being brought back into line.
But the little publicised parts of this united front have always been more important and are now an integral part of Hongkong’s political landscape. The key player here is the New China News Agency (Xinhua), China’s unofficial representative office in Hongkong.
The agency operates on many fronts at all levels. It has been successful in winning over a few Legco members and a large section of the local business community with complete dominance of the local chamber of commerce. It also has a strong hold on the retail trade through the handful of agency houses for foodstuff and consumer goods from China. The influence exerted on a tradition-minded, Chinese-speaking community is immense.
Apart from above-ground operations, there is the underground network of the Chinese Communist Party itself. Operatives have been sent into Hongkong since the 1930s. The Kuomintang claims there are between 60,000 and 80,000 underground agents. Government sources say there are 20,000 to 25,000. The media and academics accept the lower figure.
These agents live among the people, work as lowly-paid employees in the private sector or run retail businesses. According to one police source, many have moved into the lower echelons of the public service, especially the immigration service. Their role is widely believed to be to influence grassroots thinking and to keep Beijing informed of developments.
In the coming weeks, this network and the united front will be activated to give Hongkong a propaganda blitz it has never seen before. The aim is to assure the people of their future.
It will be a Herculean task. But Beijing is not overly worried if the effort fails. Since the 1970s, it has been grooming a corps of believers to run the territory. That is something that many Hongkong people fear as well.
The best hope for Hongkong as a financial and trading centre remains a combination of British-trained administrators and local business interests, with Beijing’s hand operating discreetly behind the scenes, supported by a hardworking, apolitical population.
But with the liberals and the lunatic fringe allow this? Would the newfound nationalism of Hongkong people who fear communism allow them to remain bystanders while a big chill sweeps across the mainland?
Whatever the answers, it promises to be very interesting into the year ahead.