New leaders, new challenges

Asia Times

BEIJING - Eventually, democratization will serve the purposes of China's next generation of leaders by chaneling social protest over the transformations the Communist Party envisages, just as trade unions in the West help workers to get better salaries and better treatment but do not aim at overthrowing the political system. But all-out democratization will not be needed for political stability in China for at least five years.

Such a slow, perhaps even stuttering democratization process is a hard sell in the United States, more than in Europe, especially in the face of waves of protests from Taiwan, Tibetans, Uighurs, religious groups, etc. Many of these protests, by urging change in China, can have a positive impact on the overall Chinese transformation, but in critical moments they also risk capsizing the boat of reforms, and play into the hands of the reactionaries who want no reforms. US impatience with what it views as an oppressive regime can rekindle confrontation with China and thus complicate China's domestic political adjustments.

On the other hand, how can the US be sure that China is really moving on the path toward openness? The Chinese often fail to realize that Americans are not very clear about internal Chinese politicking, even when Chinese leaders think they are quite adamant about their message. The example of Premier Zhu Rongji's trip to the US in 1999 was a classic case of misunderstanding: China gave all it had, and thought it said so very clearly, but the US did not get it - it thought Zhu's offer was just a bargaining chip, and Washington wanted to squeeze more. The episode still leaves many on each side of the Pacific believing there was a plot on the other side.

China thus needs to send a very clear message to the US, and to Taiwan, which is the most painful thorn in China's side. And if that message can't be delivered clearly in China itself, it will have to go through Hong Kong. Steps for Hong Kong's democratization should be taken as an earnest attempt to send a message to Washington and Taipei that Beijing means business when it speaks of political reforms.

But here there are many problems. Tung Chee-hwa, head of the Hong Kong government, has a very low popularity rating, and holds fast only because of Beijing's support. The easy answer would be to replace him with a more popular leader. However, Tung represents big capital, starry-eyed businessmen both in Hong Kong and Taipei supporting Beijing on the promise - often already realized - of gigantic gains in the immense Chinese market. The development created by these people in China and the drive for reunification with Taiwan can hardly be understated. Their businesses have built a solid economic link that makes it realistically impossible to separate the fortunes of Taiwan from those of mainland China.

Furthermore, there is a loyalty issue. Even the idea of replacing Tung with another pro-Beijing tycoon is not easy for Beijing. Tung took over the post of Hong Kong chief executive at a very difficult time, and stood loyally by Beijing through thick and thin. Many leaders in Beijing would think themselves ungrateful if they were to discard Tung despite his disappointing performance in public office. It is clear that Tung has failed not because people in Hong Kong saw him as too pro-Beijing, but because Hong Kong is mired in economic troubles.

Tung was not able to lift the fortunes of the territory after the 1997 financial crisis, and he was not able to reinvent a role for the city after its reunification with China. These are important political failures that might have long-term consequences for the former British colony. To cap it all, political reforms stalled in Hong Kong. We thus have a combination of economic and political failures that, while not threatening the stability of the territory in the short term, could create a gap between the people and leaders of Hong Kong, and thus between Beijing and Hong Kong, and between the mainland and Taiwan. Chinese leaders have always been wary of the danger of "distancing the masses" (tuoli qunzhong) and, in the case of Hong Kong, they must be doubly so. Hong Kong is pivotal for the relationship with Taiwan, and in the near future could help prove Beijing's good faith in the opening up of the political system.

Furthermore, China has a new batch of very popular local leaders. Two examples are the Shanghai mayor, Xu Kuangdi, who lost his job in December, and Dalian's mayor, Bo Xilai, who was recently promoted as the governor of Liaoning. These local leaders prove that the Chinese Communist Party can rear people able to gain popular support through active and positive administration. The same kind of leaders should be found for Hong Kong. This would not only be important for the territory itself but also for China and the leadership coming out of its 16th Congress this autumn.

The party would like to forget about Hong Kong's leadership during this lead-up to the autumn congress - it would rather just stick with Tung, and concentrate all its efforts on its own new leadership lineup. However, perhaps the very key for the success of that lineup lies in Hong Kong and the choice of its future leaders, who must be decisive, creative and popular. These new leaders in the special administrative region of Hong Kong could immensely help the future leaders of Beijing. Without that help, things could turn out to be tougher than expected for the party.
    Part 1: The reformist road, trod with care
    Full text (
    Part 2: The party's new social contract
    Full text (
(2002-01-05 Asia Times)


+MoreOther Commentary