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Hong Kong chafes under Big Brother Beijing

Amid protests,scuffles on the streets,plans for a civil disobedience campaign,China hardens stand

Written by New York Times | Published: March 19, 2013 3:23:41 am

KEITH BRADSHER

Looming over a modest Chinese medicine shop here that sells dried deer penises for virility and bat faeces for vision is a 40-storey monolith of dark glass and grey steel: the Hong Kong offices of the Chinese Communist Party.

For Wu Beihan,who sells traditional remedies at the shop,the dark-suited cadres next door have become an unexpected source of extra business this winter,snapping up anxiety relievers like winter mulberry leaves. “They have worried hearts,” he said.

Anxiety is understandable at the skyscraper,the Central Liaison Office. Factional struggles in Beijing have spilled into Hong Kong,with the abrupt removal this winter of the long-serving director and deputy director at the liaison office,together with transfers among other aides.

Turmoil at the liaison office has coincided with,and possibly fed,mounting frictions between Hong Kong and the mainland. Tens of thousands of people have joined large street demonstrations against the Beijing-backed government here,scuffles have broken out between Hong Kong residents and the mainland visitors,and plans are under way for a large civil disobedience campaign.

The Beijing-backed local government has responded with initiatives to allay residents’ objections. These include steep taxes on apartment purchases by anyone who is not a permanent resident,notably mainlanders; a ban on pregnant visitors from the mainland,who had been clogging Hong Kong’s obstetric wards so as to gain legal residency for their offspring; and the shelving of a plan for schools to teach a patriotic education course extolling the Communist Party.

Few expect Beijing to respond to political difficulties here by granting greater democracy. The new member of the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee who is expected to oversee Hong Kong policy in the years ahead is Zhang Dejiang,a North Korean-educated hardliner.

Yu Zhengsheng,another member of the Standing Committee,and Zhang gave strong warnings at the National People’s Congress recently that Hong Kong residents must safeguard national security—a thinly veiled threat against embracing Western concepts like democracy. Wang Guangya,the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing,went further in asserting that China’s enemies see Hong Kong as a beachhead for subverting “the socialist system”.

Willy Lam,a longtime Chinese politics specialist,said the new team installed in November was united in its hostility towards greater political pluralism in Hong Kong. They also share a deep suspicion that democracy advocates are being manipulated by the United States so as to create trouble in China’s backyard,as China asserts its territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

“There’s no difference at the top regarding Tibet,Hong Kong and Taiwan. There are no liberals,” Lam said.

Zhang has established a reputation for himself by calling for greater political obedience here to Beijing’s will. In a column in a Hong Kong newspaper shortly before he was named to run the liaison office,Zhang called for Hong Kong to enact new internal security regulations.

A previous effort to enact such legislation,in 2003,triggered pro-democracy demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands and forced the local government to shelve the plan.

Zhang has also begun hinting at a new interpretation of the legal formula for the preservation of Hong Kong’s independent legal and economic system under Chinese sovereignty,which is known as “one country,two systems”. Zhang has emphasised the “one country” portion of the formula,stressing that China’s sovereignty must be respected at all times.

Benny Tai,a law professor at Hong Kong University,is organising a pro-democracy campaign of civil disobedience for next year that is supposed to emulate the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The biggest long-term problem in Hong Kong is that most of the population wants considerably more democracy than Beijing is prepared to to tolerate. China said in 2010 that it “may” allow the entire population to vote in chief executive elections in 2017,and not just the 1,200 members of the city’s Election Committee,roughly three-quarters of whom follow the Chinese government’s instructions closely.

The question is who will be allowed to run in general elections. The most popular option is to have the entire population vote in a primary open to all candidates,followed by a runoff between the top two candidates.

But such an approach is unacceptable to the Chinese Communist Party. Some kind of screening of candidates is likely,so that outspoken critics of Beijing can campaign but not appear on the final ballot.

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