TIME Asia Magazine, July 28 2003/ Vol. 162 No. 3

TIME Asia Magazine

System Failure- Hong Kong needs not just a change of leadership but a total overhaul

By Martin Lee

Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the "one country, two systems" formula that defines Hong Kong's relationship with China, once said: "With a good system, even evil men cannot do evil. Without a good system, even good men cannot do good but may be forced to do evil." This is the problem with the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution. Although it features safeguards to protect the territory's autonomy, the Basic Law falls woefully short in many critical areas. Most important, the system of government is wholly undemocratic.

I should know. I was on the Drafting Committee of the Basic Law in the late 1980s and fought - in vain - the introduction of potentially Draconian clauses, including Article 23. While the Basic Law was still being drawn up, the Tiananmen massacre took place. It was a time when Beijing's leaders were not even sure about their own future. They were fearful that Hong Kong - where more than a million people took to the streets in the runup to the June 4, 1989, killings - would become a center for subversion. So in the second draft of the Basic Law, they amended Article 23 by adding that the territory should legislate to prohibit "any act of subversion against the Central People's Government."

Beijing's attitude toward Hong Kong then could be summarized in one word: control. Now, because of the constraints of the Basic Law, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his officials - whom we should assume are essentially good people - have little choice but to ram through laws and policies that undermine the freedoms underpinning Hong Kong, so long as Beijing desires it.

As a leader, Tung has many faults, but it's important to remember that he is also the product of a rotten system. Tung was not chosen by the people of Hong Kong. He was picked by China's former President Jiang Zemin and then duly "elected" by a committee of 400 (later expanded to 800) Hong Kongers vetted by Beijing. Although the great majority of Hong Kong people want the Chief Executive to step down, I believe it is undesirable for Beijing to remove him. That would set a terrible precedent. The best way forward for Hong Kong is not just to change the head man, or a few top officials as happened last week, but to change the system.

First, though, the new leadership in Beijing must learn to trust the people of Hong Kong. Those leaders have to understand that since the July 1 mass march, Hong Kong has fundamentally changed. The protests of recent weeks have shown that a remarkably wide spectrum of Hong Kongers do not see the territory as just an "economic city" - as many officials (both mainland and local) and some tycoons in Hong Kong still insist it is, or should be. There's been a politicization of the hitherto apolitical middle and professional classes.

Hong Kongers have signaled clearly that they regard the territory not only as a place to make money and then split for gentler political climes but as a permanent home for themselves, where their children and children's children can one day lead full lives. Leading members of the business elite are now openly acknowledging the need to heed public opinion. Even traditionally pro-China politicians are uttering what would once have been unspeakable for them: the "d" word. There's a growing awareness that the current system of elites selecting elites to rule is untenable, especially when the population is so educated, mature and cosmopolitan.

In short, Hong Kong people are ready to govern themselves in reality, not just in theory. Beijing must realize that its efforts to control Hong Kong have damaged the territory's fragile society and that it needs to repudiate this policy. That's not such a difficult decision. The Basic Law allows for the Chief Executive to be democratically elected in 2007 and all members of the Legislative Council to be democratically elected in 2008. China's leaders should take the initiative and state that they will not only allow but indeed encourage fully democratic elections in 2007 and 2008. For our part, Hong Kongers must do a better job explaining to a suspicious Beijing that democracy will lead to stability, not instability. Freedom and democracy are also the best hope for revitalizing our sagging economy - for no government can function properly without the mandate of the people. That is precisely the problem that Tung has faced all his six years in office.

Today's China is more progressive and responsible than ever before, and very much a part of the international community. While the mainland moves inexorably forward, Beijing cannot permit its showcase city to stagnate or fall behind. What Hong Kong needs from China's leaders is understanding, trust and confidence that the territory knows what's right for itself. Only then will "one country, two systems" be truly implemented in Hong Kong.

Senior barrister Martin Lee is a Hong Kong legislator and the founding chairman of the territory's Democratic Party.

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