Mutual mistrust

By : Ching Cheong, East Asia Correspondent

The Straits Times



The massive demonstration staged by half a million Hong Kongers against a proposed national security law reflects a sharp mutual mistrust between China and the Special Administrative Region deeply rooted in past history.

Beijingˇ¦s insistence that the law be enacted underlines its apprehension that Hong Kong could become a base for subversion against the central government.

This fear is not entirely unfounded. Historically, Hong Kong has indeed been a catalyst for political, and even regime, changes in China.

At the turn of the 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, used Hong Kong as a base to topple the Manchu Qing dynasty.

The present-day University of Hong Kong, his alma matter, still points proudly to his speech in the early 1920s in which he pinpointed the university as the place where he was first exposed to modern revolutionary ideals.

In the late 1920s, the so-called General Strike of Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Macau provided the necessary political mobilization for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek to launch his Northern Expedition against warlords in northern China, most of whom were remnants of feudalistic China.

And from the 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party (PPC) too had used Hong Kong as a base for operations against the central government headed by Gen Chiang.

The territory was then a propaganda centre, an underground liaison point as well as a safe haven for CCP cadres wanted by the central government.

Since 1935, the Peopleˇ¦s Liberation Army (PLA) had kept an office in Hong Kong, headed by Mr. Liao Cheng Zhi, father of Mr. Liao Hui, the current director of the central governmentˇ¦s Hong Kong and Macau Office in Beijing.

The PLA office was instrumental in procuring materials, resources and capital to support the communist revolution. It also played an important role in garnering international support and sympathy.

So it was that Hong Kong ˇV unique in that it was the only place in China that enjoyed a high degree of freedom ˇV played an active part in every major revolution or change in China, from the early 1890s till the late 1940s.

Thus the very same CCP that once used Hong Kong as a ˇ§revolutionaryˇ¨ base to topple the central government knows only too well the territoryˇ¦s potential as a base for ˇ§subversionˇ¨.

Alarm bells rang when a million people in Hong Kong, or one in six of the population, took to the streets in 1989 protesting against Beijingˇ¦s excessive use of force to crack down on student demonstrations in Tiananment Square.

From then onwards, Beijing has been viewing Hong Kong negatively as a ˇ§subversive baseˇ¨. Former premier Li Peng even tried to make this label official in his draft annual report to parliament in 1990. Only strong opposition from Hong Kong delegates stopped him.

It is this concern about Hong Kong that led Beijing to insist on a security law that, in effect, will limit the political freedom its people have been accustomed to.

On the other side of the equation, Hong Kong too harbors its mistrust of Beijing. This stems from the fact that roughly a quarter of the population were once political or economic refugees from the mainland.

According to the World Health Organizationˇ¦s First World Report on Violence (2002), mankind experienced four major man-made calamities in the 20th century. These were the first and second World Wars, and the purges under Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

Quoting various studies, the report said that the massive deaths associated with the Chinese purges, justified in the name of eradicating counter-revolutionaries, were estimated to be a staggering 40 million.

This colossal tragedy took place within the living memory of most Hong Kong people, not in the distant past. Many of them had suffered personally.

Yet the CCP has never apologised formally to the Chinese people for the immense agony and suffering.

Worse, the very political system that made the calamity possible, characterized by the monopoly of power by one party without adequate checks and balances, remains just as entrenched.

Without any means to rein in the ruling party, the Hong Kong people have good reasons to be wary of the proposed law, which seeks to ban activities that are considered ˇ§counter-revolutionaryˇ¨ in the CCPˇ¦s eyes. They see it as assuaging only Beijingˇ¦s concerns but not theirs, which are equally legitimate.

Given the apparent hardening of Beijingˇ¦s stand over the recent demonstrations, it is difficult to see how this mutual mistrust can be alleviated any time soon.