Christine Loh's Newsletter: A Bridge too far?

10 June 2004

Dear Subscribers and Friends,

Beijing is upset with statements by former chief secretary, Anson Chan. A number of high-profile people were also critical of her. Chan's reference to the Cultural Revolution ruffled feathers among Beijing leaders who see themselves as victims of what happened.

A. Chan speaks about Hong Kong

  1. Chan's position: Anson Chan was the highest ranking official from the pre- and post-1997 administrations. She is seen to be much more competent than chief executive CH Tung and it is widely believed that she must have disagreed with him on many policy matters. Her earlier than planned retirement in 2001 (rather than 2002) was seen as evidence of their conflict. With Tung being so unpopular, his unpopularity made Chan more popular with the people. Many people thought she was everything that he was not.

  2. Wishful thinking?: Since her retirement, there have been consistent rumours about whether she might return to political life by forming a "middle class" party, or forming a party with heavy participation from former civil servants, that she may be considered for chief executive by Beijing, or even run for a LegCo seat. Thus, her every movement is closely watched.

  3. What she said: Chan usually chooses her words carefully because she knows there is a wide audience. On 7 June, she had a commentary piece in TIME Asia asking the provocative question at the start: "Is there much to celebrate?" as Hong Kong approaches its 7th anniversary as the HKSAR. She lamented that society had become "polarized" and that there is "growing intolerance of different viewpoints". Chan emphasized that "the wide gap in mind-set and values" between Hong Kong and Beijing needed to be bridged. She ended by asking Beijing to trust Hong Kong people.

  4. Reason for Beijing's fury: On 8 June, Beijing responded by calling Chan's statements irresponsible. What Beijing found most upsetting was the following section:

    " ... since the unexpected large turnout of demonstrators for democracy last July 1, Beijing stance toward Hong Kong appears to have hardened. The central government has moved swiftly to lay down the law as far as the elections of the territory's Chief Executive and members of the Legislative Council are concerned. While Beijing has a constitutional right to do so, the manner in which the central government has handled this whole issue, coupled with its public rhetoric and posturing reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, have left most Hong Kong people puzzled, hurt and frustrated".

B. Reference to the Cultural Revolution

  1. Chan's words: Chan focussed on how the "central government" handled recent events and referred to its public "rhetoric and posturing" as reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution (CR).

  2. Chan's clarification: When pressed, Chan clarified on 9 June to the media that what she meant was that the way the central government handled matters made people think of the CR.

  3. Beijing's unhappiness: From Beijing's perspective, Chan's statement could deepen people's doubts in Beijing's commitment to "one country, two systems". By referring to the CR in the way Chan did, it opened the way for Beijing to criticize her for making the comparison. From Beijing's perspective it has acted according to law in making the interpretation to the Basic Law [10/5/04 eNewsletter] and it has tried to give Hong Kong the message that it wants more communication [28/5/04 eNewsletter]. Having lived through the CR, Chinese officials find Chan's comparison way off the mark.

C. Observations

  1. Chan was not the first: In describing the recent heated political debate in Hong Kong, senior Chinese official Zhu Yucheng, who heads a special think tank on Hong Kong and Macau affairs said that it was like the CR. His comments were poorly received in Hong Kong since it was hard to think that the current debate is anything like the CR.

  2. Matter of vocabulary?: For trust to be built, perhaps in Beijing-Hong Kong communication, some terms should be used with extreme care, such as the Cultural Revolution, patriots, patriotism etc.

  3. "Are you going on 1 July?": In the last few days, Hong Kong people seem to be asking each other if they will join the 1 July 2004 protest. There may well be a large crowd. For protest banners, how about keeping them positive?: "We Love Hong Kong"; "Democracy Please!"; "We would love to visit Beijing"; "A United China"; "We are not asking for independence, don't worry!" etc.

Civic Exchange - HK's Independent think tank
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