Sat, 12 Mar 2005

From: AFP

China grapples with tough decisions on Hong Kong

Martin Parry, Agence France-Presse/Beijing

China was on Friday grappling with tough decisions after Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa stood down, mulling whether its interests would be better served by anointing a successor for two years or five.

Whatever they decide, analysts agree any chance of universal suffrage in the territory in 2007 is dead and buried.

Beijing's communist leadership has remained silent since Tung handed in his resignation on Thursday but the indications appear that they favor appointing Tung's deputy, chief secretary Donald Tsang, for two years.

Tsang is a former loyalist of the British colonial administration and a devout Catholic, and Beijing would want to see how he performs, analysts said.

This goes against the territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which states that a chief executive must stand for five years, and is likely to undermine China's reputation among the international community.

"If they go ahead with two years, and despite the law they can do whatever they want, I think Beijing could lose a substantial amount of legitimacy," said Paul Harris, a political scientist at Hong Kong's Lingnan University.

"In their minds, Hong Kong is 100 percent a Beijing matter, but the international community also has a legitimate concern in the way the Basic Law is implemented.

"If they appoint for two years, it will show that promises from the Chinese Communist Party and the government are unreliable and can't be trusted."

Hong Kong returned to China from Britain in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" premise which was supposed to allow the capitalist enclave a high degree of autonomy.

Democrats insisted the mini-constitution allowed the election of the next chief executive in 2007 through universal suffrage, but Beijing has rejected this.

David Zweig, a China expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Tsang would be appointed for two years and any chance of a democratic election in 2007 was "dead".

"People see this as interference but Hong Kong people were promised a high level of autonomy, not absolute autonomy," he said.

Under the Basic Law, the Hong Kong electoral committee picks a new leader but its 800 unelected members are closely allied to the mainland.

Fu Hualing, a constitutional law expert at Hong Kong University, said Beijing would also be considering the legal issues involved in snubbing the Basic Law.

"There are lots and lots of uncertainties," Fu said.

"The Basic Law is very vague on the issue of a successor. If it does opt for two years -- which has little support in Hong Kong -- there is every likelihood that it will be challenged in the courts."

However, as the local courts in Hong Kong cannot hear constitutional issues, the judiciary will be forced to hand the matter to the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

This could force Beijing into reinterpreting the Basic Law.

"It is unlikely to want to do that as past experience has shown this is an unpopular move," said Fu.

Tung, hand-picked by Beijing to head Hong Kong after its return to Chinese control in 1997, cited health reasons for stepping down with more than two years left of his term in office.

But analysts said the move was unquestionably orchestrated by Beijing, which has been unhappy about a tenure plagued by economic recession and policy blunders.

Its decision to remove him showed not only that Beijing was tightening its grip on Hong Kong, but also that the murky world of Communist Party politics shows no signs of changing.

"There's no question that they got rid of Tung. It's been very typical Chinese Communist Party political theater," said Gilles Guiheux, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.

"It's all been done behind closed doors and no one knows what's going on. This is especially disturbing when China gives the impression to the world that it is modernizing."