Dear Subscribers & Friends
Hope you had a good summer break. It was heartening that on the day I returned to Hong Kong, the Chief Executive (CE) announced to "withdraw" the Article 23 national security bill.
The interesting question is how the decision was made and what is Beijing's position on Hong Kong post-1 July.
A. Order of events and utterances
1. 4/8/03: The CE appointed ex-civil servant Ambrose Lee as Secretary for Security to replace Regina Ip.
2. 5/8/03: Lee said he would work closely with the Department of Justice (who drafted the bill) and "make explanation to the public. We will try our best to eliminate the worries of citizens about the bill".
This represented the then official position that the bill had to be passed and that the authorities needed to work harder to explain things to the public.
3. 6/8/03: Zou Zhekai, deputy director of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong cited the Cultural Revolution when speaking about the importance of 'stability' and for Hong Kong not to become a city of turmoil.
4. 18/8/03: Lee said that the government consultation Article 23 legislation was "not satisfactory" and that the government was (a) going through opinions on the matter and (b) preparing for a fresh round of consultations.
This could be read as a criticism of the ex-Secretary of Security, Regina Ip. She masterminded the previous consultation process. Thus, despite her warm farewell by Beijing officials and local pro-government factions, she did mishandle what was a very important area of national policy.
5. 21/8/03: Tsang Yok-sing, head of political party DAB and minister without portfolio, suggested to leave legislation for the next legislature (elections in September 2004).
6. 22/8/03: James Tien, head of the Liberal Party and minister without porfolio, disagreed with Tsang that the bill needed to be deferred although he said he didn't think there should be a set timetable.
7. 25/8/03: Beijing's top united front officially said that Hong Kong's protesters on 1 July were "patriotic".
8. 26/8/03: Beijing officials stressed that the timetable and content of the Article 23 legislation was a matter for the Hong Kong authorities.
9. 27/8/03: Andrew Liao, minister without portfolio, said passing the bill before LegCo elections in September 2004 should not be the government's target.
10. 4/9/03: Lee met the Article 23 Concern Group, the group of lawyers who was at the forefront of the debate on the draft bill, but gave no indication when the consultation would re-start.
11. 5/9/05: The CE convened a special cabinet meeting to take a decision on what to do. The decision was to withdraw the bill from the legislative programme "so as to allow sufficient ime for the community to study the enactment question". The Security Bureau would set-up a special working group to review afresh the legislative work".
B. Analysis - Beijing's Position
1. Previous Position: Prior to 1 July, Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities had an understanding that the bill should be passed on 9 July. It remained the case up until 7 July when James Tien resigned from the cabinet thereby forcing the issue that the government would not have enough votes to assure the bill's passage.
2. Beijing's homework: Since then, Beijing began to review its position on Hong Kong. The strategy it has now adopted is to be more flexible, which could be seen from:
(a) What to do with the CE: Although supporting the CE to continue to run Hong Kong, Beijing urged him to adopt a more open and flexible leadership style;
(b) Improve its own intelligence: Invite more groups to visit the Mainland for direct consultation with Beijing officials rather than rely on traditional channels including its own official liaison office, and send more officials more frequently to Hong Kong to feel the pulse;
(c) Be helpful economically: Use economic liberalization means to 'help' Hong Kong in order to ease tension e.g. enable Mainlanders to visit Hong Kong more easily, speed up CEPA arrangements, and get Hong Kong-Guangdong to collaborate economically. Beijing knows the CH Tung Administration has serious problems of legitimacy and competence.
(d) Put Article 23 legislation on the backburner: This is the most effective way to ease tension.
The withdrawal of the bill was the clearest signal that Beijing has reassessed the events of 1 July. Better ground work would need to be laid for future legislation but it has been accepted that there is no hurry. Forcing the pace would be counterproductive and would harm its traditional allies, such as the DAB.
Civic Exchange - HK's independent think tank
To subscribe: email email@example.com