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 Tung withdrawn their support, the Democrats, a powerful minority party, might well have become the majority party in the upcoming local and legislative council elections.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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.