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History Table of Contents
1997 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1997
Canada and the Asia-Pacific Promise: Hope, Hype and Reality
Hong Kong and China

Maurice Copithorne,
Associate Counsel, Ladner Downs, Vancouver

Hong Kong's transition has surely been one of the best covered stories in the world this year.

We have heard all about the quite substantive differences between Beijing and former Governor (Chris) Patten, the wrangling between Chinese and Hong Kong officials over the finer points and not so fine points of the June 30 — July 1 handover ceremony.

We have seen ourselves the actual ceremony carried live around the world, we have seen the immediate arrival of the highly contentious new legislative council.

We have witnessed the final departure of Britain from Hong Kong with Patten, in the company of the Prince of Wales, sailing out of Hong Kong harbour on the Royal yacht. And perhaps not least, we have heard and seen the impact of Hong Kong's heaviest rainfall on record.

Is there anything else that can usefully be added to the thousands of words and images that most people have received on this subject over the past few months?

Perhaps the issue for most of us is simply information overload. Certainly, the Hong Kong transition has seemed like a made for television spectacular with huge numbers of foreign media in attendance, and with the costs to the Hong Kong Government reported to be in the order of U.S.$50 million.

Some people found its tightly-scripted ceremonies to be, simply put, boring. Others found some cynical amusement in the revelations that concealed fans kept national flags fluttering during the ceremonies.

What I and my friends on the platform tonight can perhaps do is to provide a personal view of where Hong Kong is five weeks later and what it might all mean for the future of Hong Kong.

Some people say that Beijing's model for Hong Kong has always been Singapore's form of guided democracy,

Deng Xiaoping himself expressed public admiration for this model on several occasions. If so, the argument goes, Hong Kong should expect some erosion of the human rights it enjoys, and as well as of the independence of its judiciary.

Some Hong Kong people say that that's a price they can live with. Singapore is an affluent place; business generally flourishes; certainly it is both clean and stable.

Others say, however, that this is not the Hong Kong tradition. Rather, it is the civil liberties, the free press, the independent judiciary that — even in the absence of direct democracy — made Hong Kong the open and successful place that it is today. Why, they say, should this be sacrificed?

Others still, the true skeptics, argue that despite itself Beijing, will be unable to keep its hands off Hong Kong, and the results won't be a success by any measure.

There would, for example, inevitably be a weakening of defenses against corruption and favouritism, a bending of the Rule of law, a tilting of the playing field towards China's own business interests, as well as those of its friends.

Some commentators say that all of this may happen to some degree but that potentially more serious, could be the baleful influence of those in Hong Kong — and there seem to be many within and without business circles — who would second-guess Beijing.

The result would be a climate of self-censorship and political correctness.

The Chief Secretary, now Administrative Secretary, arguably the most popular person in Hong Kong at the time of the handover, has herself pointed out the seriousness of this threat.

There is no pre-ordained time line, no fixed date for determining whether transition has been a success.

However, one thing we can do now is to decide how we measure success or perhaps failure. The most obvious way would be to watch the benchmarks of any open society — investment flows into and out of Hong Kong — the movement of people, emigrants out of Hong Kong, international businessmen into Hong Kong — property prices, the Hang Seng index, the balance in currency holdings between Hong Kong and the foreign exchange, etc.

Cumulatively, over a period of time, it should be clear enough whether the people of Hong Kong, as well as international business, view the transition as a success.

According to his public statements, Tung Chee Hwa, the new Chief Executive, wants:

  • Hong Kong to remain an international business city,
  • Its freedom to be maintained, although, with what he calls a "proper balance" being struck between civil liberties and social order, and;
  • Democracy to be introduced gradually.

Well then, how can we measure his actions?

There are tests every day and one of the leading ones is the electoral rules for next May's election of the new legislative council. No doubt my colleagues will talk more about the regime that has been announced. There will be many other points along the road in which the conduct of the Chief Executive can be measured.

[Chris] Patten may have been the lightning rod for Beijing's displeasure but was he really the cause of all the trouble? There is a new book by a BBC journalist which tells the story from Patten's point of view and he has promised us his memoirs.

For the moment, let's ask: If all the important decisions concerning Hong Kong's transition had been made prior to Patten's arrival, why did London decide to send a politician rather than a civil servant like his predecessors?

After Tiananmen people were getting nervous; Beijing's critics in Hong Kong held 17 out of the 18 directly elected seats in the Legislative Council. The prospect arose of Britain being seen as handing over a free people to Communist rule against their will or at the very least, without meaningful consultation.

Patten brought a creative politician's mind to restoring confidence. His agenda included, most importantly, substantially broadening the franchise for the 1995 elections, a change violently opposed by Beijing and one that we now hear, may have been the subject of a pre-Patten side deal between London and Beijing.

Further, there is no doubt that many Hong Kong people, mostly in business circles, opposed what he was doing primarily because it offended Beijing: This included old and new friends of Beijing, and others who felt that in such a struggle Hong Kong could simply not win.

However, say what one will about Patten's time in office, he established clear benchmarks of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression by which the conduct of the new administration will inevitably be judged by the people of Hong Kong and by the international community.

In his address to the Legislative Council in October 1996, he mentioned:

  • A professional and meritocratic civil service.
  • Autonomy of government finance.
  • Courts free from interference.
  • Continued vigour by ICAC, including against Chinese corporations, etc.
  • Open and fair elections.
  • Exercise of genuine autonomy by the Chief Executive and so on.
  • Beijing clearly has certain misgivings about Hong Kong's return.

Among these are the perception that the interests of Beijing could be harmed by the countenance of subversive or seditious activities in Hong Kong such as:

  • "Ideological contamination" of the mainland through the Hong Kong media or in other ways,
  • The nourishing or even tolerance in Hong Kong of PRC dissidents, and;
  • Attacks or even questioning in the media and elsewhere that touch on Beijing's sovereignty, that is to say Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and above all, Taiwan.

As these arise — and they surely all will — the Hong Kong administration will have to tread very carefully on this most sensitive of terrain.

All of this comes at a time when Hong Kong is facing significant challenges in the field of housing, schools and pensions to mention only perhaps the most prominent ones.

These are, perhaps, the issues on which many ordinary people in Hong Kong will judge the administration of Tung Chee Hwa, who himself has suggested housing should have the government's highest attention.

Celebrations were originally to have been held in a few cities but in the event, were held throughout the mainland. A hundred thousand are said to have attended the Beijing extravaganza in Tiananmen itself. It was, among other things, apparently an excuse for a general municipal cleanup in Beijing. A $10 million film spectacular entitled "The Opium War" was launched across the country. A computer war game appeared in the stores that offered the prospect of rewriting the results of the Opium War.

In Communist Party terms, the transition was an important event in the run up to the 15th Party Congress in September. Nationalism was the order of the day as it often is at the time of leadership contests in democratic states as well.

At stake, is control of the Party into the 21st century and in this context, it is very important for the present leadership to show that it has the wherewithal to pull off a smooth transition and generally, extend the Party's mandate of heaven into the next century.

A key question is whether Beijing "understands" Hong Kong.

There are various opinions. The skeptics note President Jiang Zemin's comments to a French journalist last September that the prosperity of Hong Kong is not dependent on an independent justice system and a free press.

Moreover, there are clear differences in the leadership on how to treat Hong Kong's democrats and, in particular, whether they are to be regarded as loyal or subversive.

Nevertheless, on balance I believe that for sorts of fairly obvious reasons, Beijing — and the Communist Party — want the transition to be a success. I suggest there is a genuine desire to make it work.

And, of course, whether it does work is largely in Beijing's hands. Only time will tell.