China Finds Its Global Ambitions Humbled in Its Own Backyard

By MICHAEL FORSYTHE and AUSTIN RAMZY

A pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong on Wednesday during a visit by a high-ranking Chinese official, Zhang Dejiang. Credit Dale De La Rey/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images        


HONG KONG — The heart of this global financial hub resembled an armed camp on Wednesday as thousands of police officers deployed around a hotel and convention center where a senior Chinese official was visiting.
 
For many in Hong Kong, the show of force only increased their fears that the city’s civil liberties and autonomy are under assault by the government in Beijing.
 
Across the Taiwan Strait, final preparations were underway for the inauguration on Friday of Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president. She was swept into power in part by young voters anxious about what they see as Beijing’s rising influence over the island. Ms. Tsai is expected to have a far more cautious attitude toward promoting Chinese trade and investment than her predecessor.
 
It is a humbling week for China. The world’s second-biggest economy after the United States, it is richer and stronger than ever, and its financial clout is being felt the world over. But Beijing is finding it exceedingly difficult to win hearts and minds in its own backyard, among the more than 30 million Chinese-speaking people of Taiwan and Hong Kong.
 
China is searching for a new approach toward both Hong Kong and Taiwan, but it has yet to find one that is different from the policies it has used before — hard-line political tactics that provoke resentment, and pragmatic appeals to economic interests that fall short in societies where the benefits of trade with the mainland are unevenly distributed.
 
In important ways, the visiting Chinese official in Hong Kong, Zhang Dejiang, is representative of that culture. As chairman of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, he presided over the August 2014 decision to set strict rules on vetting candidates for Hong Kong’s top official post, the chief executive, leading to the huge protests that year that captured the world’s attention. He is the highest-ranking member of the Chinese government to visit the city since then.

But Mr. Zhang, 69, is also remembered in Hong Kong as the Communist Party chief of neighboring Guangdong Province in 2003, when the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, swept over China. He was criticized for the slow response to the outbreak and for official efforts to keep the news of the deadly virus out of the media. The disease spread to Hong Kong, killing 299 people.
 
Such attitudes — a fear of democracy and heavy-handed control of the news media — are at odds with the increasingly well-educated populations in Hong Kong, a former British colony where civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are guaranteed, and Taiwan, a democracy for the past two decades.
 
Those concerns erupted late last year, when five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared, showing up later in Chinese custody in Guangdong. One publisher, Lee Bo, was plucked from the streets of Hong Kong, a violation of the “one country, two systems” principle that safeguards the city’s autonomy until 2047, the 50th anniversary of its return to Chinese sovereignty.
 
“That act is like driving a truck through ‘one country, two systems,’ ” Emily Lau, head of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong’s legislature, said in a telephone interview. “Hong Kong is going through very dark times.”
 
Ms. Lau and several other pro-democracy lawmakers met with Mr. Zhang at a reception on Wednesday evening, telling him that the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, should be dismissed. Mr. Leung was standing next to Mr. Zhang at the time, Ms. Lau said.
 
Mr. Lau and her colleagues also urged Mr. Zhang to revisit the issue of democratic elections for the chief executive post. They argued that opening up the position to a genuine contest, rather than allowing only a narrow slate of Beijing-approved candidates, would help to damp growing enthusiasm in Hong Kong for self-determination, and even independence, she said by telephone.
 
A rehearsal on Wednesday for the presidential inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan. Ms. Tsai is expected to have a far more cautious attitude toward promoting Chinese trade and investment than her predecessor. Credit Sam Yeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images        
 
 
“People are very, very frustrated, and that’s why some, including young people, are looking for a way out, including independence,” Ms. Lau told Mr. Zhang. She said he responded that Beijing was satisfied with the performance of the Hong Kong government and that people had differing points of view.
 
Earlier in the day, Mr. Zhang spoke at a conference in Hong Kong promoting China’s plan to forge better infrastructure links with Asia and Europe, called “One Belt, One Road.”
 
Concern that some of the newly radicalized groups in Hong Kong might try to disrupt Mr. Zhang’s visit — the first by a member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee since 2012 — led to extraordinary security measures.
 
At least 6,000 police officers were enlisted to provide security around the city’s convention center. Streets were sealed off, and city employees even glued down some paving bricks on sidewalks, after rioters in February threw the bricks at police officers.
 
“He must feel fearful and guilty, so he needs such high security and fears any contact with the people,” said Raphael Wong, vice chairman of the pro-democracy League of Social Democrats, whose members had assembled in one of the designated protest zones blocks away from where Mr. Zhang was staying. “He simply couldn’t tolerate any dissent against the Communist Party.”
 
The Communist Party also would not tolerate Taiwan’s declaring independence, and has repeatedly vowed to take the island by force should that happen. A Pentagon report released last week stated that China is steadily building up its forces across the Taiwan Strait.
 
On Wednesday, two days before Ms. Tsai was set to take office, the Chinese Ministry of Defense announced it had been conducting military exercises across from Taiwan involving air, sea and land forces, though it added that the exercises were “not directed at any specific target.”
 
In recent months, China has taken several other steps that put pressure on Taiwan’s incoming government. It extradited Taiwanese suspects in alleged telephone fraud scams from Kenya and Malaysia, leading to protests by Taiwanese diplomats. It also resumed diplomatic relations with Gambia, which had previously recognized Taiwan.
 
Although Ms. Tsai has promised to maintain the status quo with China, many in her Democratic Progressive Party, which captured the presidency in January elections and, for the first time, control of the legislature, support Independence.
 
Under the current president, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, cross-strait economic ties have flourished. But China’s intentions worried many in Taiwan, who saw the closer relations as tools to advance Beijing’s goal of political control.
 
In early 2014, demonstrators, overwhelmingly young people, occupied Taiwan’s legislature for 23 days to block the passage of a cross-strait trade agreement. Several of them then traveled to Hong Kong, speaking out in support of Taiwan independence and a democratic Hong Kong in July 2014, at a demonstration in the heart of the city that served as a preview of the protests that autumn.
 
Ultimately, in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, the generations now moving into positions of responsibility increasingly view themselves as separate from China, and that rise of identity politics “could pose grave political challenges to Beijing,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
 
“I feel like Hong Kong is like Taiwan more than 20 years ago, before we had free elections,” said Sung Chung-hsing, 43, a lawyer in the island’s capital, Taipei. “The young people in Hong Kong have realized the importance of freedom and elections. I hope they can raise their voices and let the mainland government know their feelings.”
 
 

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