Analysis: Is China losing its soft touch?

June 25, 2004 at 3:34 PM

HONG KONG, June 26 (UPI) -- China-watchers -- many of whom have been favorably impressed with the steady trend of reforms and liberalizations under the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao -- have been concerned about the recent, seemingly inconsistent, hard-line handling of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Speaking to the Asia Society in Hong Kong Friday, Susan L. Shirk, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego and a former deputy assistant secretary of state, offered her "speculations" as to what may be motivating the opaque leadership in Beijing.

Pointing out the "rushed and irregular way" Beijing rendered its interpretation of Hong Kong's Basic Law in April in ruling out universal suffrage -- which contrasted sharply with the careful and flexible handling of Hong Kong's mini-uprising last year -- Shirk put forward factors that may have contributed to the abrupt policy change.

First, was the unfortunate fact, for Hong Kong, that this happened to be an election year in Taiwan, and the even more unfortunate fact that the result of the election was Beijing's worst nightmare. Not only did President Chen Shui-bian, considered Beijing's arch-enemy because of his pro-independence stance, win the election, but he won with 12 percent more of the vote than he had four years ago, indicating that sentiment on the island is moving away, not toward, reunification with China.

This led to the Beijing leaders' conclusion that their economic integration strategy -- luring Taiwan back to the fold through economic incentives -- was not working. "My hunch is that recent developments in Taiwan set off alarm bells in Beijing and that this anxiety has spilled over into its policies toward Hong Kong," said Shirk.

When pro-Beijing officials launched an attack on Hong Kong democrats earlier this year, labeling them "unpatriotic," one of the criteria for judging them was support for Taiwan's independence. At the time, this note rang false as the issue had never surfaced in the debate over constitutional development in Hong Kong. Nor had the issue of independence for Hong Kong, which is a non-issue here. Like it or not, Hong Kong citizens accept the fact that their union with China is permanent.

Yet Beijing's leaders seemed to view the issues of independence and democracy as linked, along with the involvement of "foreign forces." This was another accusation leveled at Hong Kong's democratic camp -- that shadowy foreign forces were somehow manipulating them. Again, this was absurd to anyone involved in the Hong Kong movement, but it made the democrats uneasy about outspoken support of their cause from U.S. and British officials, as they lent a veneer of credence to the accusation.

"In the minds of China's leaders, perhaps they feared the linkage of Taiwan and Hong Kong, or a kind of domino effect," hypothesized Shirk. She described the link as a misperception, reflecting the leaders' own political insecurity.

If the Chinese leaders feel the "soft" approach to Taiwan is failing, their only backup plan is to threaten military action, hoping, of course, that U.S. pressure will keep Taiwan in line. No one wants a China-Taiwan war, but many China watchers agree that Beijing's leaders are not bluffing when they say they will not stand by if Taiwan declares independence.

Beijing's intervention in Hong Kong may signal that the leaders have decided to abandon the soft approach. If so, they "no longer have to worry about showcasing Hong Kong's autonomy," Shirk said. Instead, they need to show their resolve.

The recent harassment of Taiwanese business people in China -- which has included arrests on false charges followed by demands for ransom and for evidence that the person did not vote for Chen Shui-bian -- supports the theory that Chinese tolerance for disloyalty to the motherland is wearing thin.

The repercussions could be huge. "China's 'peaceful rising' slogan is being debated now in China," said Shirk. "It makes them sound too accommodating."

She said that China's political class now blames former President Jiang Zemin's soft approach for the negative trends in Taiwan. Fearing that his political legacy could be jeopardized, it may have been Jiang's idea to take a tough stand on Hong Kong through his protégée and supporter, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, who is in charge of Hong Kong affairs.

Having asserted their authority, however, Beijing officials now seem to be trying to calm things down, as are the Hong Kong government and the democrats, ahead of a mass rally planned for July 1, the seventh anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China and the first anniversary of the pro-democracy march of half a million people.

The Legislative Council Wednesday passed a motion by veteran democrat Martin Lee calling for unity and cooperation between Hong Kong and Beijing. In response, an official of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong said that the door was always open to people of different sectors of society, a sentiment expressed by Zeng Qinghong himself during a state visit to Tunisia this week. The "different" sector implies a reference to the democrats, who have until now been excluded from most meetings with mainland officials.

Shirk said that Beijing had not paid much of a political price for its heavy-handedness in Hong Kong, as most countries were choosing to ignore the issue. She said Beijing had lost an opportunity, however.

"Beijing has earned tremendous respect by actively supporting international positions and opening its economy," she said. "By being more responsive to the people of Hong Kong, it could enhance its soft power, and send a signal that it might even return to the path of political reform it set out on in the 1980s."

As to the role of U.S. politicians, including U.S. Senator Sam Brownback who introduced a Congressional resolution supporting democracy in Hong Kong, Shirk said, "Congress always tends to overestimate the influence of U.S. policy all over the world."

And despite good intentions, there is the danger that foreign intervention could make things worse. As Shirk explained, "You have to face up to the fact that if the U.S. wraps its arms around this issue too passionately, it triggers a backlash in Beijing as well as in Hong Kong."

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