Jasper Becker: A flicker of hope for democracy in China

Instead of browbeating the Hong Kong electorate, Beijing tried a new sunshine policy

Share
Related Topics

Sunday's elections in Hong Kong, the tiny corner of China where they are tolerated, turned out rather well for Beijing. The Democrats pocketed one extra seat to get 18 of the Legislative Assembly's 30 directly elected seats, while pro-Beijing politicians picked up another five to get 12 seats, despite the support of the heroically unpopular Tung Chee-hwa.

Sunday's elections in Hong Kong, the tiny corner of China where they are tolerated, turned out rather well for Beijing. The Democrats pocketed one extra seat to get 18 of the Legislative Assembly's 30 directly elected seats, while pro-Beijing politicians picked up another five to get 12 seats, despite the support of the heroically unpopular Tung Chee-hwa.

It is the first time the Chinese Communist Party has played a skilful hand in any elections; it smeared its enemies, put up more flags and dangled enough economic allures to attract some undecided voters. This could have big repercussions, not so much for Hong Kong but for Taiwan and the future of democracy on the mainland, home to nearly a quarter of humanity.

A few months ago, no one could have thought it possible that the pro-Beijing camp could make any gains in Hong Kong. Beijing had re-installed the chief executive or governor Tung Chee-hwa for a second term, against the popular mood. Tung infuriated the 7 million Hong Kongers with a draconian national security law and then by fumbling the Sars crisis. As the economy went down the drain, half a million took to the streets in peaceful opposition. This July, nearly as many renewed the pro-democracy protests. The Democrats rode a wave of optimism as Beijing lashed out like a wounded tiger. It staged a nasty campaign to derail a bandwagon calling for direct elections of the chief executive by 2007, when Tung's second term expires. Across the Straits, Taiwan's third presidential election had seen Beijing's worst enemy, Chen Shui-bian, re-elected on a platform of independence. Once again, the Taiwanese had ignored Beijing's military blustering .

These events threw fuel on the fire that is burning inside medieval courtyards of Zhongnanhai, where President Hu Jintao lives and rules. The muffled sound of a big fight is emerging from the vermilion walls. Hu wants to force his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, to retire from his last big title as military chief when the Central Committee assembles for its annual meeting on Thursday.

Casting himself as a liberal by trying to make a push for glasnost, much to the fury of his grumpy old predecessor, Hu has begun making public reports of the meetings of the politburo. He has also tried to abolish the Vatican-like enclaves by the seaside at Beidaihe, where party gerontocrats traditionally spend August deciding everything by themselves.

Hu's actions smack of political reform, and the infighting has grown nasty. There are rumours that Jiang's entrepreneurial sons may have been arrested, or least some of their cronies, a traditional sign of a major upheaval at the top. In response, Jiang has fumed that Hu is courting national disaster by allowing the Taiwanese to get away with their insolence. The two leaders are now refusing to be photographed together in the People's Daily.

Hu Jintao seems to be gaining the upper hand. China called off its annual summer war games in which troops practice an invasion of Taiwan. In Hong Kong, a new sunshine policy started. Instead of browbeating the electorate, the authorities tried to win them round by appealing both to their pockets and their patriotism.

Democratic politicians who had been barred from entering China since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre were suddenly given visas, although one of them was turned back when he went to Shanghai, a Jiang stronghold.

Beijing sent down Yang Liwei, its popular astronaut, showed off its finest troops and paraded its Olympic gold medal champions. It expanded a free trade pact and invited Hong Kong businesses to invest in the giant Olympic infrastructure projects in Beijing. Most of all, it can claim credit for turning the Hong Kong economy around by encouraging a tide of mainland tourists to flood in, crowd the shops and hotels, prop up the stock market and snap up the empty flats.

Many people in Hong Kong are still convinced that they are being stitched up by an unholy alliance between greedy Hong Kong tycoons and the party's hatchet men. That may be why the wilder fringes of Hong Kong's opposition did unexpectedly well at the polls, including Albert Cheng, a motor-mouth radio host and the last Marxist left in China, and "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, a heckling activist who sports a Che Guevara T-shirt.

The dark and dirty side of Communist Party electioneering was certainly on view during the campaign. Many believe the party has been using triad gang members against vocal opponents like Albert Cheng, who survived chopper attacks and threats against his family, and had to leave the territory for several months for his safety. Emily Lau, another prominent critic, had her offices smeared with excrement and her house broken into. Another opposition candidate, Ho Wai-to, was jailed for six months after police alleged he was caught in bed with a prostitute. It was an unusual penalty in a country where prostitution is rife.

The good news here in Beijing is that the unfolding power struggle might just leave a more liberal generation in control. This might be one that could one day feel prepared to fight and win at the polls. In that case, Hong Kong could be the start of something big that could spread all over China; but that is still a very distant cloud.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Weekend Factory Operatives

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is curr...

Recruitment Genius: FP&A Analyst

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A market leading acquirer and m...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fully qualified electricians re...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the Labour leadership election hasn’t yet got to grips with why the party lost

John Rentoul
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific