On September 5, in an astonishing victory for liberty in Hong Kong and an equally unexpected defeat for Beijing and its hand-picked chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, the Hong Kong government withdrew a proposed new law against subversion and treason.

The intended bill was so broad in its definitions of treason that many in Hong Kong feared it could be used to suppress even mild dissent, whether in the press or in public statements. To protest the legislation, more than half a million people went into the streets on July 1 and caused several members of Mr. Tung’s government coalition to threaten to defect. What was surprising was that the Hong Kong politicians made their threat with implicit approval from Beijing. Had those allies of Mr. Tung withdrawn their support, the Democrats, a powerful minority party, might well have become the majority party in the upcoming local and legislative council elections. Mr. Tung’s already waning powers in the city would have been further undermined.

China prudently decided not to force the passage of the legislation, which it realized might have brought about disorder in its richest city and possibly shaken cities across the border, such as Guangzhou and Shanghai. Beijing does not want to seem to be in charge of Hong Kong, although the city is now under the direct control of one of China’s top five officials.

Hong Kong has a special character that some Chinese leaders understood before the British handed over power in 1997. In March 1995 Li Ruihuan, one of the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo that rules China, received a delegation from Hong Kong and told them a story. A woman, he said, owned a dark old teapot from the famous Yixing potteries in central China; it was renowned for its delicious tea. A collector offered the owner a high price and said he would return the next day for his prize. Eager to please, the woman cleaned the pot, taking special care to remove the black residue inside. When the collector returned he was horrified that the patina and the residue—which gave the tea its special flavor—had been removed. He refused to buy the pot.

Li told his visitors that Hong Kong’s unique characteristics must not be altered and he admitted that Chinese leaders didn’t fully comprehend the city that would be handed back to the People’s Republic on July 1, 1997.

It was precisely such a misunderstanding of the nature of Hong Kong that, on the sixth anniversary of the city’s return to China, impelled over 500,000 citizens to demonstrate against the local government and call for the removal of Tung Chee-hwa. No one, including the organizers, had expected such a turnout. Some 500,000 people in a city of fewer than seven million is half the number of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. Indeed, apart from the Tiananmen protests in 1989 and the earlier Tiananmen protest on April 4, 1976, when a great crowd shouted against the Gang of Four, this was the third-biggest anti-government protest in a Chinese city since the Communist victory in 1949. Its significance was not lost on Beijing in July; in 1989, a million Hong Kong people had marched in support of the Tiananmen demonstrators and sent them huge sums of money.

Warning against “turmoil” and the threat to Hong Kong’s “stability,” the Beijing leaders suggested various reasons for the July 1 march, ranging from criminals called “black hands” in Hong Kong to disloyalty to China. None of these included the main reasons: the upcoming legislation on sedition and treason set out in Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or mini-constitution, and the character and policies of Tung Chee-hwa.

The Basic Law resulted from British– Chinese negotiations in the 1980s and 1990s that were intended to carry out Deng Xiaoping’s formula “One Country, Two Systems.” The Chinese were willing to guarantee Hong Kong’s “dancing and horse-racing,” Deng’s metaphor for the city’s distinctive way of life; but they wanted to keep dissidence under control. The subversion article, as first drafted in 1988, forbade “any act designed to undermine national unity or subvert the central people’s government.” Critics in Hong Kong immediately denounced it as inconsistent with British common law, which was supposed to continue after 1997. The statute was reworded in more tolerant form.

But after the June 1989 uprisings throughout China, and the huge demonstrations supporting them in Hong Kong in April 1990, the article was redrafted again as Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and now reads:

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.

Beijing realized that enacting such a law immediately after the 1997 handover to China would confirm the suspicions of those who expected the Chinese to be heavy-handed in imposing power. The bill, Mr. Tung announced, would not be introduced until his second five-year term. In July 2002, the Chinese deputy premier, Qian Qichen, urged the Hong Kong government to put Article 23 into effect. When it was publicly circulated, 350,513 people in Hong Kong signed their names to comments on it. The government claimed most of them approved the statute. Subsequent analysis showed the opposite.


Opponents of Article 23 expressed many objections. They feared, for example, that the charge of “treason” might apply to a newspaper article supporting Taiwanese independence. In 1997, after the handover to China, a senior Hong Kong official, Michael Suen, told me that a university scholar in Hong Kong doing research on Tibetan independence could be deemed treasonous or subversive. If the Catholic Church in Hong Kong made contact with the illegal “underground church” on the mainland, it could be accused of treason. If banks or investment houses published information about economic changes inside China, they could be accused of stealing state secrets. That is why banks and the chamber of commerce—which in the pre-1997 years had condemned Governor Patten for his mild extensions of democracy—attacked the bill for undermining Hong Kong’s political and economic tranquility. Foreign consuls joined in. President Bush commented that he hoped no new laws would upset Hong Kong’s prosperity and unique liberties.

Nonetheless, by late June of this year the government was confident that it could steamroll the legislation through the Legislative Council—“LegCo”—where it controls almost forty of the sixty votes. After half a million people took to the streets in protest, that confidence faded. Tung waited a few days before admitting that the night after the march he had not been able to sleep. Within a week James Tien, head of the Liberal Party, which supports the government in LegCo and is a member of Tung’s inner cabinet, traveled to Beijing. He then resigned when Tung refused to delay the bill, a sign that Beijing was not strongly supporting Tung. When LegCo member Tsang Yoksing, leader of the party with the strongest ties to Beijing, announced that he, too, regarded the bill as “divisive” and urged its delay, Tung realized that he might lose the LegCo vote, that Beijing was not backing him, and he said he would postpone the bill.

Tung also declared that he would eliminate some of the most repressive articles, such as those permitting the police to enter premises without a warrant. He also said that if journalists wrote articles based on confidential government documents they could defend themselves by arguing that they were acting in the public interest. By now, however, the entire bill was under attack, and what might have been acknowledged months before as serious changes in it was now treated as mere window dressing.

In the second week of July security officials from Beijing came to Hong Kong to investigate what had gone wrong; during their visits, 50,000 people demonstrated against the bill on two occasions outside the LegCo building. A few days later Tung suffered more setbacks. The much-disliked secretary for security, Regina Ip, resigned (claiming she had done so two weeks earlier, although there had been no announcement). Two hours later Hong Kong’s anti-corruption commission said it was forwarding to the director of justice for possible prosecution the tax-evasion case of Financial Secretary Antony Leung, Hong Kong’s third-ranking official. He quickly resigned. Beijing—not the Hong Kong government—soon announced replacements. Henry Tang, a rich manufacturer who has hardly concealed his ambition to become chief executive, is the new financial secretary. The new security secretary, Ambrose Lee, has had a long career in the Civil Service, and is a close ally of Regina Ip, his predecessor. Neither appointment seems to promise more liberal policies.

During his visit to Beijing in September, China’s new leaders formally praised Tung. But by permitting James Tien and Tsang Yoksing to disagree with the chief executive, the Beijing government made it clear that it did not want to risk further disturbances over the subversion bill in China’s richest city. As Tsang Yoksing said, “As long as public opinion remains negative, the government has no hope of getting a majority in LegCo to pass the legislation.”

Tung, who was born in Shanghai in 1937, had been selected as chief executive of Hong Kong in late 1996 by then President Jiang Zemin. His rich family fled the mainland before the Communists took over and set up a shipbuilding business in Taiwan. Educated at the University of Liverpool, with long residence in the United States, Tung, after years of prosperity, was deeply in debt both to a Hong Kong tycoon, Henry Fok, and to the Beijing government for bailing out his family’s bankrupt company. The last British governor, Chris Patten, included him in his executive council as a link to Beijing.


In every crisis that has struck Hong Kong the chief executive has proved inept and insensitive, whether in dealing with the chicken-influenza epidemic of 1997, when Tung ordered the extermination of every chicken in Hong Kong only after long delay, or with the SARS outbreak earlier this year, when he again delayed dealing with a grave emergency. He relies on his affability, as well as his lack of involvement in Hong Kong’s day-to-day problems, to fend off any criticism. In my interviews with him in 1997 I was struck by the shallowness of his knowledge of the city and by his self-confident dismissal of any public criticism. He demonstrated his favoritism in July 2002, when he appointed a cabinet of cronies accountable, he said, “to me.”

As Christine Loh, one of Hong Kong’s most acute political observers, said in July,

The reason so much seems to hinge on [Tung’s] personality, is that Hong Kong people believe [he] has over the last six years been turning Hong Kong into something they don’t recognize. His decisions indicate a low level of professionalism, impulsive decision- making, favoritism, elitist arrogance based on wealth and not ability, poor use of talent, and policy conservatism.*

The immediate problem for Beijing is what to do about Tung. He can be removed from office only on the most serious grounds of failure—or ill health. To sack him would be an unthinkable insult to former President Jiang Zemin, who chose Tung and still wields strong influence. And who would take his place?

Tung was “elected” the first time by a special committee of seven hundred– odd members selected by Beijing. For his second term, when he was unopposed, he was made chief executive by acclamation. The Basic Law stipulates that genuine elections for the chief executive and LegCo could, but need not, take place in 2007. It is unlikely that Beijing would permit them; and even if it does, four years is a long time to wait while Tung continues to attract contempt.

Across the border, Beijing has always known what to do when it perceives “counterrevolution”—its definition of the Tiananmen uprising in 1989—as well as treason, sedition, or activities that it calls “anti-China” or “anti-Party.” There have been frequent workers’ demonstrations on the mainland for better conditions and there have also been peasant riots against corrupt officials. Whether in the city or the countryside, the “ringleaders” are soon arrested and sent to prison. Most members of the tiny mainland Democratic Party are in prison or exile; so are the occasional dissidents who call for a reevaluation of the Tiananmen massacre. Muslims seeking independence in Xinjiang are branded as “terrorists” (sometimes with White House approval), and Tibetan monks or nuns who call for the Chinese to leave are imprisoned and tortured in Lhasa’s Drapchi prison.

If there were continuing demonstrations, could Beijing really call on the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong to attack local citizens? Could it send in the People’s Armed Police from over the border? Neither possibility seems likely. Both forces acted with great brutality at Tiananmen in 1989, and to use them in Hong Kong would be seen in China and elsewhere as a disastrous failure. Beijing has preferred to think of Hong Kong as an apolitical city devoted to business, where political acts are the result of “troublemakers.”

In fact the citizens of Hong Kong have, on the whole, been cautious. As the Hong Kong democrats emphasize, no one has called for Hong Kong in-dependence or attacked the authority of the central government. Beijing has stayed its hand in Taiwan even when faced with a different political system, national anthem, army, and democratic presidential elections. If the PLA used its muscle in Hong Kong, the already slender possibility of a rapprochement with Taipei would fade away. In late summer Beijing reconsidered its warnings to Hong Kong citizens about causing “turmoil” and its officials began making conciliatory remarks. In mid-September a central government official, Liu Yandong, director of the Party’s United Front Work Department, described most of the 500,000 demonstrators on July 1 as “patriotic”—an amazing concession by the Communist regime. Other central government officials noted approvingly that the demonstration did not attack Beijing.

But Beijing no longer trusts Mr. Tung to run Hong Kong. To consider the problems of Hong Kong it has appointed a “central leading group” (CLG) under Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, a Politburo Standing Committee member who is fifth in the official hierarchy. Such groups are formed only for especially difficult matters. And no Politburo member until now has ever been so directly and officially involved in overseeing Hong Kong. Zeng, the Standing Committee’s most old-fashioned ideologue, is a disciple of ex-President Jiang, who appointed Tung. Zeng’s goal is to prevent Hong Kong’s democratic alliance from winning the future elections for LegCo and the next chief executive.

The situation in Hong Kong can be summarized briefly. Beijing appointed an incompetent proconsul to run Hong Kong in 1997. Tung’s six years in office have gained him little besides contempt. For many in Hong Kong his stubbornness and stupidity regarding Article 23 have been intolerable. They want him replaced, and they also want assurances that they will eventually have full democracy. On October 6, a group of pro-democracy activists took an ad in a Hong Kong newspaper saying, “Mr. Tung, the will of the Hong Kong people is that you resign, resign, resign….” Beijing has been faced, therefore, with demands it would never consider on the mainland. But its usual punishments for such dissent seem inconceivable. This is why Mr. Tung was advised to withdraw the subversion legislation.

This is therefore a historic moment for Hong Kong’s almost seven million people and for Beijing. Bao Tong, once the director of the Communist Party’s Office of Political Reform, who spent seven years in prison between 1989 and 1996 for encouraging the Tiananmen demonstrators, observed in July: “If they make the wrong choice, the Beijing leadership will leave both the Hong Kong and central governments in a perpetual struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the people, thereby ensuring fundamental instability in China.” At least for now, Beijing has done the sensible thing. China’s leaders must now be considering, with some intensity, how the quite unexpected victory for liberty in Hong Kong can be contained.

This Issue

November 20, 2003