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One Leader, Two Masters

By Todd Crowell

SNA (Tokyo) — People in Hong Kong knew in their gut that this day would come, the day when there would be an inevitable showdown with China over the former British colony’s autonomy and desire for full democracy in all its governing institutions.

The many young people and students that have formed the core of this protest have no memories of Hong Kong before the handover to China in 1997, nor the wrenching suppression of the protests that occupied Tiananmen Square for more than a month in 1989.

But they are not too young to have heard the stories and absorbed the barely-suppressed anxieties of their fathers, who in turn, many of them, heard the stories of their fathers who had fled China for the safety of Hong Kong after the communists came to power during the Chinese Civil War.

In the years just before the handover many of the fathers had taken the precaution of acquiring citizenship in other countries such as Canada and the United States, often leaving families behind for several years in order to gain the “insurance” of a foreign passport should they have to flee again.

In the years that immediately followed the handover many of these fears subsided. Those who had acquired foreign passports quietly put them away. The units of the People’s Liberation Army that rolled into Hong Kong on the day after the handover, disappeared into their barracks and were not seen again.

In retrospect, those early days were perhaps the golden post-handover years. The mechanics of “one-country, two systems” seemed to be working fine. On July 1, 2003, a half a million turned out in one massive protest against proposed laws perceived to violate liberties without the police having to resort to tear gas.

In a sense, Hong Kong people may have been lulled by the success of that protest demonstration and others after the government quietly withdrew the proposed laws. Beijing could decide it was a local screw up and quietly acquiesce to the protest demands without losing face. That’s not the case in the current troubles.

The current demonstrations take aim at a decision that Beijing made through the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to allow a city-wide, popular vote for the Chief Executive, but only those candidates vetted by a select committee beholden to China.

The protestors are rightly upset about this action, yet a city-wide election held under those terms need not be meaningless as some suggest. Not all “pro-Beijing” figures come from the same cookie mould.

Even before the current troubles, Hong Kong people particularly disdained the current incumbent Leung Chun-Ying. If he had had to run against another candidate, even a “pro-Beijing” candidate, in a city-wide election, he might easily have lost.

Indeed, something very similar to a two person race happened in the last election in 2012 when two candidates contested the small-circle election. One was Leung and the other was Henry Tang, then the financial secretary. Tang had to drop out following revelations that he used public money to enhance his residence, and Leung won by default.

Many of the protestors and others in the pro-democracy camp yearn to elect as chief executive a kind of Chinese version of the last British governor, Chris Patten, something that Beijing simply would not countenance.

In fact, there is such a person in Anson Chan, whose term as chief secretary (i.e. head of the civil service) straddled the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. Beijing despises Chan, not just because she was appointed by Patten (whom the Chinese also despised) but because of her frequent jabs at Beijing’s leadership.

If the people of Hong Kong were free to nominate whomever they chose, they would undoubtedly pick Chan as one of the candidates, and she would almost certainly win in an open election. I’ve long suspected that Beijing would delay any free vote until she had passed from the scene.

But at age 74, she seems as vigorous and feisty as ever. She had thrown herself into the current dispute through such actions as her recent speech to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Hong Kong and op-ed piece in Time.

“I think people have demonstrated that we want the whole loaf, not half a loaf. And we certainly do not want a loaf that is rotten through and through,” was among her choicer quotes during her recent speech at the Hong Kong FCC.

Before the handover many people assumed that the chief executive (replacing the British colonial governor) must come from the business community, somebody highly in tune with the business life blood of Hong Kong.

That has proven to be a bad assumption. Hong Kong has had two chiefs from the tycoon class, and they were and are both failures. Through the Asian Financial Crisis and other economic trials, Hong Kong showed that the economy could pretty much run itself.

What it lacks are political leaders.

Rather than the one-country, two systems construct, a better term for the current political crisis might be “one leader, two masters.” Any Hong Kong chief must somehow please or appease two “masters,” Beijing and the Hong Kong people.

It is a task that requires the extraordinary dexterity and political skill that none of the three post-handover chiefs has ever come close to displaying. Maybe it is beyond anyone’s abilities.

Todd Crowell is a veteran journalist, writer, and editor, focusing on Asian politics and business.

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