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Democratic Steps In Hong Kong Leading to Arguments over Patriotism - 2004-02-24

Hong Kong's first steps toward becoming a full democracy have turned into an argument over patriotism. Mainland Chinese officials say only patriots can lead the city and insist some pro-democracy politicians do not meet the criteria.

The marching music, blaring on a busy Hong Kong street, is aimed at raising pride in this former British colony that is now a bustling self-governed territory of China. Next to the loud speakers stand young members of the main pro-democracy party, handing out flyers encouraging residents to support full democracy.

But China analysts say the central government is wary of democracy. They say leaders in Beijing fear Hong Kong voters will elect politicians who might not agree with the communist government. They also worry that more democracy in Hong Kong could foster similar efforts across China. As a result, Chinese leaders say only patriots can lead Hong Kong and China's definition of patriotism is causing concern here.

Recently, China's Vice Minister of Commerce An Min rebuffed Hong Kong reporters who asked if certain pro-democracy lawmakers were patriotic. Mr. An reiterates earlier comments by China's state media that those who have spoken out against Beijing are not patriotic.

Last July, Hong Kong people surprised the central government in Beijing by demonstrating against proposed anti-subversion laws and the territory's leader Tung Chee-hwa. The protesters said the laws threatened civil freedoms and that the Beijing-backed Mr. Tung was out of touch with the people. To calm the mounting criticism, Mr. Tung shelved the laws.

Beijing did not respond to the protests immediately. But in the months since, state media have said that the half million residents protesting on July first were not patriots, because they opposed Beijing's desire to have the laws passed.

Deng Xiaoping, China's late leader, was the first to use the word patriotism in connection with Hong Kong's future. He negotiated Hong Kong's return to China and invented the formula "one country, two systems," under which the city keeps its capitalist system and British-style judiciary.

Christine Loh, who served as a lawmaker in the years leading up to Hong Kong's return to Chinese control in 1997, now runs a think tank here called Civic Exchange. "I think if we look at what Deng actually said at the time it was extremely worrying," she says. "He said that those who meet the criteria, it doesn't matter whether they believe in capitalism, feudalism or even slavery."

She says Mr. Deng defined patriots as those who respect China, support the resumption of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, and desire to maintain Hong Kong's prosperity and stability. But Ms. Loh says that Beijing automatically disqualified some Hong Kong politicians from being seen as patriots, even if most people think they meet those standards. Many of the founders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy parties started their careers protesting in support of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, which ended in bloodshed. So Beijing, she says, views them as subversive. Many of those politicians and activists are barred from visiting China, even as members of official delegations.

The debate over patriotism has filled the local media, with nearly daily news articles and editorials from both sides. But there is growing unease in the community over the matter.

Even many politicians aligned closely with China think the argument over patriotism is misguided. Ma Lik, the leader of Hong Kong's largest pro-China political party, rejects the idea that the protests last year were unpatriotic. "I think the majority of people that took to the street last July - they are also patriots," he says. "I don't like the discussion right now because naturally all people, most Chinese here are patriots." He added that his opponents, the members of the Democratic Party, pose no threat to China's national security.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution states that eventually the city should have full democracy. It opens the door to a change in the way the next chief executive is chosen in 2007, and indicates that all 60 legislators can be directly elected after 2008.

Currently, the chief executive is chosen by an election panel of about eight hundred Beijing-approved delegates. A minority of Hong Kong's lawmakers are directly elected by the people, the rest are appointed by the government or professional and labor groups. Beijing has said it must approve any constitutional changes on direct elections.