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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


As the handover nears, the territory braces for an influx of major players from China

By Todd Crowell and Law Siu Lan / Hong Kong

WHEN BRITAIN'S LAST GOVERNOR sails out of Hong Kong on July 1, the colonial government will be replaced by a new and untested power structure. Yes, the fledgling special administrative region (SAR) will still have familiar sources of authority -- the judiciary, the police, big business. But into the picture will step wholly new institutions from China, which may or may not develop into power centers in their own right. They include the local representatives of Beijing's Foreign Ministry and the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Also uncertain are the new functions of an established player, the Xinhua News Agency.

Most of Hong Kong's incoming institutions and brokers of power are more closely associated with the "one-country" side of the famous formula governing the status of the territory under China. They complement the existing structures, on which the "two-systems" part rests. Holding it all together will be the future chief executive, Tung Chee Hwa. Small wonder that Chinese Premier Li Peng quipped during a March encounter with Tung, "You are much busier than Chris Patten" -- the territory's outgoing governor.

In recent months, Tung has worked hard to build harmonious relationships with China's leaders. He already has a solid bond with President Jiang Zemin, who favored his selection as Hong Kong's post-1997 chief. Since then, Tung has sought to win over Li. He took care, for example, to consult with the premier during his recent visit to Beijing before reappointing nearly all of Hong Kong's senior civil servants. The reappointments were widely praised in the territory.

Without such personal rapport and confidence, Tung knows, Beijing would be more tempted to meddle in the SAR's affairs, making it hard to realize the "one country, two systems" ideal. In Hong Kong, the new chief executive can count on the support of some people with exceptional lobbying powers in Beijing. Yet Hong Kong would not want its relations with the central government to be dependent on personal contacts alone. Tung has a direct line to President Jiang, but it is a privilege easily abused by overuse.

Many of China's major provinces and cities can lobby the national hierarchy directly because their leaders also serve on the Communist Party Politburo, the country's top decision-making organ. Tung, a non-party member, is unlikely to gain a seat on that body. In any case, such a prospect would not be in Hong Kong's interests, as it would tend to blur the distinction between the capitalist region and the communist mainland.

Nonetheless, the SAR would benefit from a permanent presence in China's capital. After all, Hong Kong has long maintained similar representation in London. Such an office would allow the new Hong Kong government to communicate more easily with central leaders and keep abreast of national political currents. When Tung visited Beijing recently with Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan, a key aim was to lobby for high-level representation for the SAR in the capital and later in China's major provinces and cities.

For the time being, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, headed by Lu Ping, will continue to serve as a conduit between Hong Kong and Beijing. Further into the future, however, the HKMAO seems intent on carving out a role as an intermediary between the SAR and other government entities in China below the national level. When Tung met with Guangdong province officials across the border on the controversial issue of illegal child migrants in late April, HKMAO deputy director Chen Ziying flew in from Beijing to attend.

Xinhua is also trying to define a post-1997 role in Hong Kong. Since 1949, it has been China's de facto consulate in the territory. Some observers believe its mission ought to be over, come the handover, and it should become what it purports to be -- the local bureau of the country's official news agency. But deputy director Zhang Junsheng told reporters recently: "Xinhua will continue to carry out the functions delegated by the central government. The director, ranking as a minister, will be the most senior mainland official in Hong Kong."

Two factors argued for a continued political role for Xinhua, Zhang maintained. One is the need to coordinate the activities of the 1,700 mainland-owned enterprises now in the territory. The other is to handle China's Taiwan policy, as it relates to Hong Kong. That task would not fall to the new Foreign Ministry office since Taiwan is considered a domestic matter. Moreover, Xinhua has cultivated extensive contacts over five decades in every corner of Hong Kong life. For some time yet, no other mainland organization will be able match it as a liaison or pulse-taking channel -- functions Beijing values.

Even so, there is unease within Hong Kong's incoming administration over too prominent a Xinhua role. It does not relish the notion of a "shadow chief executive" operating out of the agency's fortress-like headquarters. "A clear definition of Xinhua's functions after July 1 is crucial to Hong Kong's promised high degree of autonomy," says Chinese University professor Lau Siu Kai, who also serves on the Preparatory Committee, the Beijing-appointed handover body. "With its extensive resources and connections, Xinhua can affect the configuration of political forces and even the selection of future chief executives."

Tung has been careful not to make substantive comments on Xinhua's future. When pressed, he says only that "China will make suitable arrangements." He has little reason to love the organization that backed his leading rival, former chief justice Yang Ti Liang, during the race last year for the chief executive's post. Since then, Xinhua has adopted a low profile. There are no signs that it plans to challenge Tung's authority directly. But so long as its role remains undefined, Xinhua is a potential contender for influence.

The agency has another, unstated function. Its director has traditionally headed the clandestine Communist Party cell in Hong Kong, called the Hong Kong Work Committee. Its status has always been ambiguous -- never officially banned, but never registered as a legal entity either. Nevertheless, it has a long history. Cadres led dock strikes against the British back in the 1920s and organized guerrilla squads against Hong Kong's Japanese occupiers during World War II. When the Cultural Revolution broke out in China in 1967, the communists helped instigate riots in the territory. They are thought to number about 10,000 today.

The party's status may stay unclear. Liberal legislator Christine Loh tried to have it clarified by introducing a bill toward that end in the Legislative Council, but her effort was defeated. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said last year that "the Communist Party will not directly interfere in the daily administration of the Special Administrative Region." Hong Kong, he added, would not operate like Beijing, Shanghai or other mainland cities, where "the governmental and party administration act in parallel."

The SAR's new Foreign Ministry office and PLA garrison are the result of constitutional requirements. According to Hong Kong's post-handover Basic Law, international relations and defense are the exclusive preserve of the central government. Work is nearly complete on a huge building at a choice location -- donated by local property tycoon Li Ka Shing -- to house the foreign affairs establishment. Headed by former Chinese ambassador to Britain Jiang Enzhu, it will have a staff of about 300.`

The foreign office will take over some of the functions of the present government's protocol division, which looks after visiting dignitaries. It will also coordinate dealings with foreign consulates and issue visas for travel into the mainland. One early challenge: to determine the status of consulates whose governments maintain formal ties with Taiwan. The office will not be involved with international bodies, such as the World Trade Organization, in which Hong Kong's membership is separate from China's.

Last month, an advance guard of PLA soldiers arrived in the territory to prepare the way for the full garrison. The size and composition of the force is not unlike that of the British contingent it will replace: a 5,000-strong infantry brigade, a flotilla of patrol boats and a helicopter group. The whole garrison numbers about 15,000, but most will be based across the border, deploying into Hong Kong on rotation. The commander, Maj.-Gen. Liu Zhenwu, will report directly to Beijing -- unlike his British counterpart, who is under the Hong Kong governor.

The army's chief purpose is to serve as a symbol of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong. There has been a concerted effort in recent years to "civilianize" many military tasks, even innocuous ones such as search-and-rescue operations. Hong Kong's Basic Law allows the SAR to ask for PLA help to keep public order. But given local sensitivities, such a request is unlikely to be issued except under extreme emergency. Indeed, "one country, two systems" depends on it.

China Town

The mainland's chief Hong Kong-linked organizations:

XINHUA. On the surface, just the national news agency, but entrusted with many other weighty tasks. Before the handover, Beijing's de facto consulate. Afterwards, it will coordinate activities of mainland companies in Hong Kong, handle matters concerning Taiwan and oversee the underground Communist Party cell -- besides covering the news, of course.

HONG KONG AND MACAU AFFAIRS OFFICE. Beijing's chief coordinating agency for Hong Kong policy. Deals with Chinese provincial and municipal authorities regarding the territory. A rival of Xinhua's for influence in Hong Kong.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTRY. Hong Kong branch to be set up with the handover. It will maintain ties with foreign consulates, issue visas for travel in China and take care of visiting dignitaries.

PEOPLE'S LIBERATION ARMY. A garrison to be based in Hong Kong after the handover. Symbol of Chinese sovereignty and defender of the SAR if necessary.


This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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