2003: Disease, death and defiance: the worst year of Tung Chee-hwa’s life

[SARS, etc]

…While the government could have been trying harder to protect Hong Kong from disease, it had spared no effort defending the city from treason, sedition and the theft of state secrets. The National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill had been introduced into Legco in late February. Even at the height of the SARS outbreak, the bills committee (for which most members had signed up) continued meeting. Pro-government lawmakers accused the opposition of filibustering and political posturing, while the opposition denounced the loyalists of stifling debate and scrutiny of the bill. Government concessions to human rights concerns, some of which were expressed by western governments, were grudging and widely perceived as insubstantial or simply rectification of obvious flaws (for example, allowing jury trials in cases under the law, not criminalizing possession of seditious material and removing an ancient offence called misprision of treason).

On 14 June, many pro-democracy legislators, along with some government law and security officials and overseas experts, were attending a Hong Kong University conference on the Article 23 law. The pro-government members of the bills committee seized the opportunity to wave the rest of the bill through and passed a motion declaring the discussion over. They came out of the council building bearing smug grins. It was the most mean-spirited of several parliamentary tactics government supporters used to ram the bill through. They used a similar approach at a constitutional affairs panel meeting soon after, when, after most pro-democrats had left for other business, they voted seven to one against discussing direct election of the chief executive for the rest of the year. They were not being as clever as they thought. Such behaviour further increased the public’s suspicions about the bill. Furthermore, the evident pleasure the pro-government legislators took in flaunting their majority was offensive and bound to create resentment among the bulk of the community who supported the pro-democrats’ cause. There was ‘Lexusgate’.  There was unemployment – now, in the aftermath of SARS, at 8.7%.  There was deflation, which had reduced prices by 11% since 1998. There were salary cuts.  The poor suffered 11% welfare payment cuts, while civil servants took a pay cut of just 6%. Tung and his allies were testing the people’s patience.

China’s new team of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had taken office in March. Although this marked just the start of the transition from the Jiang Zemin era, it sparked hopes in Hong Kong and elsewhere for a more enlightened style of leadership in China. Wen was an instant success when he visited Hong Kong for the sixth anniversary of the city’s return to the motherland. He visited a hospital to thank staff for their efforts during SARS, and he had a photo opportunity with an Amoy Gardens resident whose wife had died of the disease and left him with a newborn baby, delivered by caesarian at the time of her death. It was the sort of thing Tung was hopeless at. Tung started off the next day, 1 July, with a holiday speech in which he promised to speed up economic recovery and complete economic restructuring. Wen made assurances that Hong Kong’s freedom would be safe under Article 23 laws, but he refrained from praising Tung. An anti-Article 23 march was planned for the afternoon, and no Chinese leader – even a new, personable one – could be in town at the same time, so Wen left for Shenzhen. It is hard to believe that the Chinese premier’s conversations that day could easily end up in the public domain, so the stories are probably apocryphal, but they have passed into legend. Wen supposedly asked Tung how many participants were expected on the march, to which Tung replied “around 50 thousand.” A few hours later, watching the demonstration on TV in Shenzhen, Wen was cursing the chief executive and demanding to know what was going on.

A bit of history was being made. Two days earlier, Regina Ip had blithely remarked that many of the protestors would actually be people who saw the march as, “a kind of activity because it’s a holiday … [it doesn’t] necessarily mean that they are against Article 23.” For many, it was probably the insult that tipped the balance. Dressed in black (as advised by the organizers), standing on the concrete of Victoria Park for an hour or two, then trudging through the streets for another few hours on a blistering hot day with high humidity is not most people’s idea of a fun holiday activity. But even on the morning of 1 July, the number of people wearing black around town was noticeable. By early afternoon, many MTR station platforms were full of them, forming lines 10 deep or more waiting for the next train. By 2.30, the numbers trying to exit at Causeway Bay station had become so great that packed trains were rolling straight through to the next station. The influx took police by surprise, and vehicles found themselves stranded in a rapidly rising sea of demonstrators in the side streets around the park. The 40-acre park filled to bursting point, apart from several concrete sports pitches booked by pro-Beijing groups for a little-attended counter-event.

Despite a carnival atmosphere, the event was intensely political. A Hong Kong University survey showed that 80% of marchers cited both Article 23 and Tung as reasons for coming. Some carried large playing cards featuring the faces of the pro-government legislators who rammed the bill through two weeks earlier (the cards were all jokers). The most popular refrain was “Tung Chee-hwa stand down!” A simple white-on-black sticker attached to umbrellas, backpacks, taxis and lampposts featured that phrase in Chinese with the plaintive comment underneath in English, “We deserve better.” One group carried a toilet with a papier mache caricature of Tung’s head protruding from it. In Wanchai, the route passed the headquarters of two communist-funded newspapers, and marchers covered the metal shutters with posters given away with that day’s Apple Daily showing Tung’s face obscured by a pie being hurled into it. The survey showed that 60% of marchers had tertiary education, and 80% were aged 20-50; but all sorts turned up, even the elderly struggled in the heat, and plenty of people brought children. There wasn’t a single arrest. Crowds waiting to enter the park cheered passing vehicles sporting anti-Tung posters; the number 23 bus, with grinning driver flashing a victory sign, received special applause.  Mainland tourists looked on from their busses passing the march; some in awe at something they would never see across the border, others slapping the windows, raising their hands high and clapping.

It was 7pm before the last people left the park, and nearly 10pm before the last marchers arrived at the finishing point at government headquarters in Central. The police assumption – shared by the organizers – that 200,000 people would attend was a serious underestimate. At least 500,000 went through the park. Including cheering bystanders, shopkeepers who put buckets of ice on the sidewalk and people who joined the march halfway, it is likely that one in 10 of Hong Kong’s population took part in ‘7-1’. A subsequent poll showed an even larger proportion claiming to have been there, suggesting that people who hadn’t gone were wishing they had. It was the biggest demonstration since 1989, and the city’s biggest ever expression of popular civic power. One young couple told a reporter they had brought their six-year-old daughter, “so she can tell her children she was here.”

Hong Kong felt different the next day: for the first time in a long time, it seemed more people were smiling and had a spring in their step. Tung was not among them. For each of the three days following the march, he greeted the reporters outside his office with a ‘good morning’ and a forced smile and then disappeared inside. On 5 July, he held a press conference at which he described the Article 23 law as concerning “the national dignity and the glory of the Chinese race,” but acknowledged the concerns of the community and said the government would make some significant concessions. These reduced Beijing’s influence over the banning of foreign groups, allowed public interest as a defence for disclosing official secrets, and made the police get search warrants.

For months, the government had been denying that these concessions were possible, leaving the impression that officials had either been lying, or they were now weak and scared. Either way, the government’s opponents smelt blood. The following day, with the apparent blessing of at least some of the Beijing leadership, Liberal leader James Tien resigned from the Tung cabinet. Without his party’s eight Legco votes, the government had no hope of getting the bill through its final stages. The government announced that the bill was being deferred. On 7 July secretary for health EK Yeoh resigned “in the spirit of the accountability system,” after all the criticism about the handling of SARS. On the evening of 9 July, a crowd of 50,000 surrounded the Legco building to demand the complete withdrawal of the bill and, for good measure, universal suffrage. The most memorable event of the night was the departure in a minibus of pro-Beijing member Philip Wong Yu-hong, who was captured by a TV camera grinning and raising his middle finger at the crowd; this was a week after being awarded a Gold Bauhinia Star “in recognition of his distinguished public and community service.” The DAB made embarrassed noises about how it might reconsider its support for the government. On 16 July, the government announced the resignation of Regina Ip (she had handed it in three weeks before). With Tung apparently unable even to coordinate resignation announcements, Antony Leung’s departure was made public that same day. Opposition politicians renewed the previous year’s calls for the resignation of Fred Ma over the penny stocks incident; some went back to 1999 and demanded the head of Elsie Leung over the non-prosecution of newspaper owner Sally Aw.

On 19 July, Tung flew to Beijing. It was not one of his better months.

The Article 23 saga gave Hong Kong new heroes. The unlikeliest was James Tien, a second-generation tycoon who had long argued that the city should be run by wealthy, self-described elites; his treachery against the government was opportunistic, as was everything the Liberal Party did. Although Tien hankered after political power, there was little sign he and his colleagues were fit for it. Among their more memorable policy suggestions were: a tax cut on luxury cars to give the city a more prosperous image; immunity for minibus drivers from increased penalties for running red lights; and a cut in the minimum wage for foreign maids – a blatantly populist measure that was adopted.  He backtracked away from his conversion to man of the people when it became expedient, though he ran in a directly elected geographical constituency in 2004. The fight against the national security law also brought five members of the pro-democracy camp to a level of prominence that rivaled that of Martin Lee of the Democratic Party. They were Bishop Joseph Zen of the Catholic church, and four barristers who had formed the Article 23 Concern Group in 2003 and spearheaded the legislative and publicity fight against the government’s bill: Audrey Eu, Margaret Ng, Alan Leong and Ronny Tong. The group renamed itself the Article 45 Concern Group, in honour of the Basic Law clause declaring that election of the chief executive by universal suffrage is the ‘ultimate aim’.

Not least, the people of Hong Kong could take pride in the fact that for the first time ever, they had told the government what to do, not the other way round. Indeed, in effect, they had faced down the Chinese government and the CCP – an unprecedented event in the PRC’s history. Expectations for a more democratic form of government increased overnight. Tycoons, always ready to hedge their bets in case of a shift in the power structure, adopted a more conciliatory tone about political reform. The central people’s government, meanwhile, went very quiet. As with SARS, their people on the ground had not told their masters in the capital the truth about the local situation. Some emissaries were later recalled and replaced by new agents with orders to put out discreet feelers to a broader range of opinion and report back truthfully. But the idea that Hong Kong needed a broader-based political system did not get a hearing in Beijing. Aside from making vague mutterings about foreign forces trying to split the city away from the motherland and banning any mention of these Hong Kong events in the mainland media, officials in Beijing stressed the importance of stability. They clung to the only explanation for the dissatisfaction in Hong Kong that made sense to them: economic woes. All Hong Kong people really cared about was money. Greater prosperity in the city would end calls for universal suffrage.

During his visit, Wen Jiabao had signed CEPA, the closer economic partnership arrangement, a deal under which the mainland would grant tariff-free entry to Hong Kong-manufactured goods. The one problem was that Hong Kong no longer really produced any. CEPA also opened up mainland markets to some Hong Kong services, but the small print left few actual benefits. (And why should it have? Hong Kong was far richer than the mainland and had no right to expect favours.) CEPA’s benefits would be felt “in the long term”, according to commerce industry and trade secretary Henry Tang, or “almost immediately”, according to Antony Leung. Beijing had also started to allow mainland tourists easier access to Hong Kong (and other overseas locations), though the economic boost from often low-spending mainlanders was limited and confined to sectors like hotels, some retailers and commercial landlords. The waves of mainlanders in fact put many retailers catering to local people out of business, as landlords raised rents and let property out to stores selling goods sought by the new visitors, like skin-whitening products and gold. However, the tourists were a visible sign of recovery, and the programme of allowing more to enter was quietly rolled into CEPA, which was otherwise little more than a publicity exercise to make people think that Tung’s good relations with Beijing brought material advantages.

The idea of begging for ‘economic gifts’ from Beijing went down well in many quarters. Of course, it was patriotic to express gratitude for the supposed assistance; but such was Hong Kong’s existentialist angst that many saw it as the city’s last hope. Throughout the economic troubles since 1997, the notion had been catching on that Hong Kong was being left without an economic role. Shanghai in particular was feared as a threat, though with power cuts, no rule of law, exchange controls, censorship, weak accounting and regulatory regimes, corruption, a mainly industrial economic base, and skyscrapers that were sinking into the marshland, the mainland’s commercial capital was not much of a rival. While Hong Kong supplied Shanghai with investment capital, the most visible export in the other direction was prostitutes. It would have been disrespectful for Hong Kong’s leaders to point all this out, however, so the idea of Shanghai-as-threat went largely unchallenged. In the wake of SARS, a flurry of conferences and semi-official bodies came into being to encourage ‘cooperation’, ‘integration’ and ‘partnership’ between Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta and other parts of China. Hong Kong officials stepped up their own references to the importance of the mainland to Hong Kong’s economic future. One subtext to this was the importance of good relations with Beijing. Another was the familiar refrain ‘we must focus on the economy’ – code for ‘stop asking for political reform’. A third was that the days when Hong Kong thrived as a confident, outward-looking and economically independent spirit were over.

Rumours that Tung would soon stand down turned out to be false (rumours that Beijing had been planning to ditch him but now felt compelled to keep him to avoid being seen to bow to public opinion had more credibility). He adopted a slightly more humble tone after the 7-1 march, promising to listen to the people more, but also vowing to ‘improve communication’. This mantra, which dated back to the start of his administration, reflected the government’s assumption that its policies were correct and popular opposition was a result of a failure to explain them adequately, or simply the inability of dimwitted citizens to comprehend. This delusion was a direct product of the political structure and the arrogant and defensive mood it engendered in the administration. It would outlive Tung’s time in office.

It was also beyond Tung to bend to those beneath him in the order of things, also a characteristic of the senior civil servants. They were, for example, uncomfortable with the Equal Opportunities Commission under liberal lawyer and former legislator (and Anson Chan appointee) Anna Wu Hong-yuk, who had taken an activist approach to enforcing the city’s laws against gender and disability discrimination. In 2001, the EOC had challenged official policy by taking the government to court for discriminating against girls in allocating school places, and it had won. What followed was a classic example of the cultural war between Hong Kong’s two broad camps. After much uncertainty, the government finally announced on the day after the 7-1 march that it would not renew Anna Wu’s contract. Her replacement was Michael Wong Kin-chow, a nondescript former judge with little relevant experience who soon provoked outrage among human rights and other lobby groups by firing Wu’s incoming deputy, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission member Patrick Yu Chung-yin. It then emerged that Wong, already controversial for keeping his judge’s pension while pocketing a hefty EOC salary (and citing costs as a reason to fire Yu), had accepted, without declaration, some air tickets as a gift while serving in the judiciary. It was a minor transgression, but it was enough for pro-democracy legislators and others, who proceeded to set upon Wong in Legco and elsewhere. Wong was hounded out of office, armed with a resignation letter apparently drafted with home affairs secretary Patrick Ho and pro-Beijing EOC member Raymond Wu Wai-yung that was widely considered to smear Anna Wu, much to the anger of her many admirers throughout the community, including many moderate members of the pro-government establishment. Tung had hoped for a lower-profile EOC (he was more fortunate with Wong’s replacement, a relatively neutral former civil servant).

The second half of 2003 saw economic recovery. The stock market picked up on cue after 1 July, and property transactions, which had almost ground to a halt during SARS, followed suit, rising 140% in the final quarter. Retailers similarly enjoyed better times. Anyone brave enough to have bought property or shares or sign a rental lease during SARS turned out to have made a smart move. Hong Kong, or at least its younger and western communities, celebrated with Harbourfest, a government-sponsored series of rock concerts on the empty and little used Tamar site. Although greatly enjoyed, the HK$100 million event inevitably became a controversy, resulting in a 200-page report solemnly considering, among other things, whether the Rolling Stones had been overpaid (they hadn’t). The aim had been to boost morale, but if anyone succeeded in doing that at this time it would have been Pui-Pui, a crocodile that mysteriously appeared in a New Territories creek in November and resolutely defied attempts to capture it. Entered in a radio station’s personality of the year poll, Pui-Pui enjoyed a landslide victory.

The reptile was not alone. November’s district council elections attracted a heavy turnout of 44% – slightly more than had voted in the previous Legco poll. The voters were attracted by the opportunity to punish the pro-government parties that had tried to push through the national security bill, and they delivered a stinging blow in particular against the DAB, which won only 30% of the seats it contested, versus 47% in the previous polls. The Democratic Party scored a success rate of 79%. China’s attempts to help the DAB, for example by arranging for its members to hobnob with one of its astronauts, probably backfired.

DAB chairman Tsang Yok-sing resigned in favour of Ma Lik. A survey of voters leaving polling stations reported that over 80% supported universal suffrage for the Chief Executive election in 2007 and Legco in 2008. True to form, Tung used his power of appointment to supplement the pro-government ranks on the councils. The government announced that it would proceed in early 2004 with a consultation on political reforms ahead of the legislative and chief executive elections due in 2007 and 2008, the earliest date, according to the Basic Law, that Hong Kong could have democracy. Officials were drawing up a timetable for reform. Some 100,000 marchers in December made it clear that they expected full universal suffrage soon. In Beijing, however, paranoia about Hong Kong spinning out of control and being taken over by anti-communist pro-democrats was on the rise. Hong Kong was supposed to be ‘an economic city, not a political city’. It was supposed to be grateful for the economic assistance China had granted; instead, the people had thrashed the DAB in an election and were becoming ever more insistent on democracy. It was time for Hong Kong to be taught another lesson.