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Britain, China, and Hong Kong: the pot keeps boiling.

Can democracy exist in the crown colony once it transfers to Chinese rule in 1997?

The war of words between Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten and Beijing is at a simmer. While talks between the United Kingdom and China have continued, Beijing's harsh rhetoric has caused considerable unease in Hong Kong, driving the stock market into a pattern of erratic swings, with nervous collapses followed by euphoric highs.

On the surface, there doesn't seem much to argue about. Patten's proposal expands the voting lists for representatives from functional constituencies - groups representing economic interests and occupations - and increases their number. This hardly signals the arrival of "one man, one vote" in the territory. To be sure, if implemented, the plan would include most working people, nearly all of whom are excluded from voting today. Yet, it actually could serve to reduce political competition, rather than heighten it. Functional constituencies, features of corporate states, are designed to achieve representation through consensus-seeking economic interest groups, not individualistic and competing political parties. It is only a small step from these groups to the easily controlled "mass organizations" favored by communist parties.

So, there is a lot of speculation about just why the Governor made his proposals and what is behind China's reaction. Did the British want to leave a little more "democracy" behind when it gives up this colony in 1997? Or did the Governor want to show that the Hong Kong government - marginalized in earlier disputes about the new airport, privatization of the government's radio and television services, and other projects - still had some clout?

Chinese motives are even more cloudy. Is the reaction simply an overly sensitive response to a change in what appeared to be a done deal, a smooth "through train" of convergence and shift of administrative responsibilities? Or does it reflect simple distrust of the election process, especially since pro-Beijing candidates were defeated, despite growls of "consequences" in the local pro-Beijing press, in the September, 1991, voting for the Legislative Council.

It is more likely that deeper political and cultural factors are at work. At one level, the Chinese response looks like Bolshevik intimidation, a show of muscle designed to split the business community and other potential sources of support for the Governor. At another, it may be a display of the traditional Chinese compulsion to control. Some observers feel that the People's Republic of China (PRC) can not allow any liberalization in Hong Kong for fear of the spread of political viruses. This interpretation - the Brezhnev Doctrine with special Chinese characteristics - overlooks the virtual independence of South China and the spread of Hong Kong values there.

The response could be the echo of a power struggle in the PRC itself. Opponents of economic reform may have picked on the current regime's weakness over China's "lost sacred soil" - Hong Kong and Taiwan - as a symbolic club to attack reform with, so the present leadership has to be tough.

Taiwan in particular must be rubbing nerves raw. Fighter plane sales by the U.S. and France and the visits of foreign figures such as former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, fresh from infringement and intellectual property victories over Beijing, can not be counted as diplomatic successes by the Chinese leadership. The February, 1993, elections in Taiwan, showing gains for the independence-minded Democratic People's Party over the Kuomintang, may suggest to some in Beijing that chances for reunification are slipping away.

Chinese nationalism, which always has had a strong anti-foreign streak, plays a role as well. The recovery of Hong Kong means the end of the Opium War. If China can take a little humiliating revenge on the former imperial power, so much the better. The recent attack on Jardine's, a British firm that got its start 150 years ago running opium, responds to this sentiment, widely held even in Hong Kong.

The importance of taking over the economic powerhouse that has fueled the spectacular growth of the South China economy and that may represent the PRC's future must not be discounted. Nevertheless, even when economic reform is in the air, politics comes first.

Regardless of what might be the motives and goals of the players, their different methods and styles have made the dispute difficult to resolve. What has ensued is a fascinating case of cross-cultural miscommunication.

Patten, after all, is a Western democratic politician. He treats Hong Kong as he might his British constituency. His public manner is open and he likes to be seen mingling with the local people. His style is about as far as possible from that of the Chinese elite, who cultivate distance from those they rule, staying aloof and remote. To do otherwise would be undignified. "Fat Patten," as the Governor sometimes has been called, may offend Chinese proprieties. He also will be a hard act to follow.

Patten's negotiating style is in the best Westminster "Green Paper-White Paper" style. He expects concrete responses to his proposals and deals with words, not intentions. However, the Chinese don't play the game the same way.

The Chinese response fits the classic step-by-step negotiating pattern encountered by many foreigners in their dealings with the PRC. It is an aggressive, manipulative style that proceeds in steps. At each new stage, the pressure escalates and new elements, seemingly unconnected to the issues at hand, may be introduced. The pace may vary, old issues may be reintroduced, very often at the end of the negotiations, and there may be moments of relaxation. The point is to keep the opposition off balance.

Initially, the Chinese define their negotiating arguments on broad matters of principle. Any perceived deviation from those principles at any point is grounds for fierce personal attacks on integrity, sincerity, and even rationality.

At the next stage, tactics include vague threats of severe consequences, followed by attempts to exploit possible splits within the opposition. Subsequently, the opposition will be accused of tricks and plots. Then, the Chinese side warns that the entire negotiation - and, more importantly, the relationship on which the talks are based - are in jeopardy and may be abandoned.

At every level, blame-shifting is central to the Chinese approach: faults always lie with the other party; it is the other side that is provocative and dishonest, responsible for raising tensions, and does not honor prior commitments. The pattern is a rising spiral, keeping the pressure on, expanding the issues and the consequences.

What are effective countermoves? As a successful negotiator once said, the Chinese taught him how to be firm, but not hostile. Much of the bluster is for effect and to provoke. A strategy of calm, unhurried responses often is effective. Allowing oneself to be provoked is to fall into their game. Those who understand what is going on may not enjoy it more, but at least they will have a broad idea of the other side's method. Even for people who understand the Chinese strategy, it is difficult to emulate the model.

Thus, Beijing's first response was to reject Patten's ideas on the grounds of principle, as contravening the Basic Law, Joint Declaration, and previous "secret agreements" between London and Beijing. When those "agreements" were released and shown to contain standard diplomatic vagaries, the Governor's sincerity and even his rationality rapidly came under fire from the PRC's mouthpieces in the territory.

At the same time, Beijing played to the business community's sensitivities. Pro-Beijing groups issued statements attacking the Governor. The pressure has been kept up. Chinese spokesmen have suggested that, should the reforms go through, contracts for projects spanning the 1997 transition might not be honored. The Chinese have heightened their criticism of the new airport and container terminal. Some of the groups claiming to represent executives and professionals, exercising their right to free opinion, have taken issue with Patten as well, polarizing much of that community.

As the dispute continues, Beijing has continued to raise the level of argument. China has played on nationalistic and racial feelings by accusing Patten of not understanding and thus not caring about the majority of Hong Kong people, who, pro-Beijing papers have pointed out, are the children of the Yellow Emperor. These same publications have charged the Governor with masterminding a conspiracy to internationalize the Hong Kong issue, perhaps, even to split South China off from the rest of the country, thereby prolonging foreign influence and control.

Speaking in London, Chinese economic boss Zhu Rongji suggested that, if the dispute is prolonged, perhaps the Basic Law and Joint Declaration - the bases of the transition - should be "cast to the wind." Throughout, the blame is put on Patten and "the Hong Kong British government" for not keeping their promises.

It is easy enough to discount the conspiracy theory as simple projection. Plots and maneuvers are the stuff of Chinese politics. It also is their political habit to fear internal enemies, but to talk in terms of foreign scheming. Nevertheless, the language the Chinese have used as the dispute has grown and deepened should not be dismissed.

When the Chinese talk about "the Hong Kong British government," they are sending a strong signal that no matter what Patten - or the territory's semi-elected Legislative Council - does, the PRC will consider it to be illegitimate. In Beijing's eyes, the administration of the territory has no standing - it is a remnant of colonialism and imperialism, controlled by London and perhaps even more sinister forces.

At the same time, however, the "through train" of convergence means the maintenance of what Beijing calls "an executive-led government." These are code words for an administration unhampered by restrictions from representative bodies. The colonial system did work this way, but was limited by British legal traditions. After 1997, the executive will remain. It is uncertain whether any legal traditions, British or Chinese, will have a restraining effect.

Would Beijing Act?

More significantly, Beijing has attacked Patten's proposals as threatening Hong Kong's future stability and bringing future chaos to the territory. "Stability" and "chaos" are loaded terms in the Chinese political lexicon. The preservation of the first and avoidance of the second not only are basic Chinese political values, but also are code words for the maintenance (or dissolution) of the Communist Party's authority. Beijing has hinted that it might intervene in Hong Kong should "chaos" threaten the livelihoods of fellow Chinese. Since the PRC has reserved to itself the final judgment about conditions in Hong Kong, the threat is real.

It is debatable whether China would take drastic steps. The PRC has much at stake in Hong Kong - it is the largest single investor in the territory, which serves as funnel for trade and capital flowing to and from the booming South China economy. Hong Kong is said to be the test case for the eventual reunification of China and Taiwan. Moreover, in the not so distant future, China hopes to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a step essential to further economic development and one that will require the good will of the international community.

However, it also has said that the dispute with Patten touches on Chinese national interest and that compromise is not possible. The darker side of Chinese arguments, linking foreign plots to threats of chaos, recalls the accusations made by Beijing following the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Those charges were the statements of a regime that felt itself at risk and under siege. Does the regime today feel itself as much at jeopardy? Considering the Hong Kong situation realistically, it should be recognized that the regime not only is not bashful about using force to uphold "national interests," but is willing to wait out any storm of international protest. In any case, in an era of nationalist tides, the Chinese might remind the U.S., it is not appropriate to defend colonialism.

The answers to these questions and calculating the next twist in the story only can be clarified by history. Patten's sit-tight strategy may pay off. It is hard to see what his alternatives might be. Firmness does pay off, but the Governor has a weak hand. Time is not on his side, and the Chinese know it.

More attempts certainly will be made to separate the Governor from his support base. The formation of groups of Hong Kong "advisors," a united front technique, and threats to create alternative centers of power - the so-called "second stove" - are moves in this direction. Personal attacks against Patten have continued. The markers for a tough Beijing line are in place.

The debate has sharpened the Hong Kong people's perceptions of China and has washed away some of the wishful thinking that has surrounded the 1997 transition. Patten deserves at least two votes of thanks. He has caused Beijing to reveal the depth of its anxiety and concern about Hong Kong and has laid bare the realities of power in the region. As shown by the dispute and public discussion, Patten has laid to rest one of the enduring myths about the territory - that Hong Kong people are not interested in politics.

At bottom, it is an argument over values. The case is fascinating for what it reveals about Sino-Western relations. Those who live in the territory, however, can't forget that it also is for real.

Dr. Frankenstein, a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong and former Chinese language officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, is senior research associate, Department of International Studies, The American Graduate School of International Management, Glendale, Ariz.
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Author:Frankenstein, John
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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