HONG KONG -- Reading articles in the American press over the last year about Hong Kong and its unique relationship to the mainland, one could be forgiven for thinking (as I did at some points) that Hong Kong and China were close to geopolitical fisticuffs.
A year ago this summer, half a million Hong Kong residents were demonstrating in the streets of this dramatic city, which the British turned over to Beijing seven years ago. More mass demonstrations followed, all apparently in the name of the greater "democracy" and "universal suffrage" promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that ended a century of British rule here.
I have just come from Beijing. From the innumerable personal and official conversations I had there, it's clear that the Chinese regime is as nervous as any communist regime gets when faced with that fearsome word: DEMONSTRATION!
The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 remains wedged in their minds like a bullet that no doctor can remove; and while the regime appears more progressive on the surface because of the extraordinary prosperity of China's cities, it is also moving with new repression against the growing number of Chinese Christians. (Falun Gong, for instance, has all but disappeared from the picture.)
In addition, last winter the Beijing communist regime made clear to Hong Kong that, although they had promised seven years ago that democratic elections were the eventual goal for the city, they would not happen as soon as 2007 or 2008, as everyone had expected. At the same time, Beijing, always afraid that Hong Kong, with its heritage of British legalisms and freedoms, would be a breeding ground for subversive organizations, began pushing for a tougher national security law, which many Hong Kongers saw as an all-out assault on civil liberties.
But the primary complaint here is not China at all. It's the fumbling, increasingly derided local government headed by the incompetent Tung Chee-hwa, personally chosen by the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and elected not by popular mandate but by one of those unique Hong Kong elections of special interest groups.
As one prominent Western diplomat here summed up the problem to me: "People here don't want to confront the central government; they only want to change the Hong Kong government."
What the average Hong Konger really resents, person after person told me, is the dumb way their own government has handled relations with Beijing -- relations that are still distant and formal. "They don't have our civil culture," one Hong Kong Chinese business leader told me. "They don't come to our meetings or work with us. In fact, the attitude toward the mainlanders seems more one of disinterest and lack of involvement than dislike."
Yet there is a distinct irony here. Another Chinese Hong Kong businessman told me: "The British ruled us so long that now, for the first time, we really feel this is 'our town.'" This is backed up by polls and surveys showing not only that substantial majorities of Hong Kongers want democracy, but also that they are ready to struggle to be better prepared for it politically than they now are.
But that sense of local responsibility presents Beijing with an increasingly demanding Hong Kong electorate -- exactly what it does not want.
In the old days, the communist solution to such insufferable bothers would have been simple. The People's Liberation Army, or PLA, forged by the communists from 1927 on, would be sent into the streets to put down the hateful demonstrations. Ah, but this is a different time. Today, Chinese leaders, dressed impeccably and with elegant manners redolent of ancient Chinese courts, cross and criss-cross Asia, using the prevalent disgust with America over the invasion of Iraq to foster new respect for China as THE power to know in Asia. Last year, China joined the World Trade Organization, which translates into instant respectability; and the same year -- 2008 -- that Beijing doesn't want Hong Kong holding potentially turbulent elections, China is hosting the Olympics, the ultimate on the international respectability meter.
So where is the hoary People's Liberation Army today?
Everyone I talked to here said the soldiers stay in their barracks outside the city and are virtually never seen. On top of that, the army has done something so previously unthinkable that one has to blink with wonder: In order to ameliorate some of the recent tensions, the PLA has invited the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong to its big birthday parade on Aug. 1 outside of Hong Kong. This is the first time there has been such contact between the two groups.
In earlier days, one might have thought of this as an intention to gain submission -- but no one thinks that now. As the independent commentator Lau Yui-siu told Reuters this spring, Beijing today is shrewd enough to know that using its army to frighten the territory's people would no longer work. Instead, it is using other, far more sophisticated tactics.
Beijing even sent the supposed finger of the Buddha to Hong Kong for a display visit as a friendly gesture. And this winter, for the first time, Beijing allowed mainland Chinese to cross over into Hong Kong, which has both alleviated tensions and boosted the economy.
Meanwhile, the relationship remains important because it stands as an example of how and whether a communist state such as China can really coexist respectfully with a more open system. China demonstrates how much it is changing by how much it allows Hong Kong to change.
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