SCMP Saturday, July 7, 2001

Tung faces hard sell to Washington's leaders


Who's winning the tug of war? Is Hong Kong becoming more like the rest of China or is it the other way round?
This topic was discussed in a series of panel discussions held by the Asia Society in four major United States cities last month. The debates were inconclusive, but the fact that significant numbers of people attended demonstrates the fascination with Hong Kong among important sectors in the US. Americans have been watching closely how the political and economic integration between the SAR and the mainland unfolds in the new constitutional era.
While most people agree the handover has proceeded more smoothly than anticipated, there are some who believe Hong Kong is losing its vibrancy. Disturbing cases such as the right-of-abode saga, the departure of former chief secretary for administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang and the controversy surrounding the Falun Gong spiritual movement have caused anxiety about Hong Kong's autonomy.
Economically, serious questions have been raised about the future role of the SAR, as the Chinese economy prepares to further open up after it enters the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Some business executives have warned of serious competition from Shanghai. Such concerns produce a more worrying picture of Hong Kong as a place losing its unique character and edge - a city on a downward slope.
So, when Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa travels to Washington DC next week to talk to US President George W. Bush, top State Department officials and congressional leaders, painting a brighter picture of Hong Kong will be his priority. Indeed, it appears the SAR's leaders have been trying to create a more positive atmosphere in the run-up to Mr Tung's visit, his first since Mr Bush was elected. Senior officials say there are no plans to enact laws targeting the Falun Gong, apparently displaying greater awareness of the sensitivity which would surround such a move.
The Government's commitment to religious freedom was underlined by Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Mr Tsang has also pledged not to compromise press freedom. Concern about these two issues figured prominently in the Hong Kong section of the US State Department's annual human-rights report.
Government sources concede issues such as the Falun Gong and press freedom are set to be raised in Mr Tung's meetings in the US. But they are confident they will not seriously affect the Washington discussions, as there has been no concrete evidence of a government clampdown. One says: "Even the US human-rights report found the media remains alive and well."
In a statement issued on Tuesday, a White House spokesman said the meeting between Mr Bush and Mr Tung "will afford both leaders an opportunity to discuss the importance of maintaining the high level of autonomy enjoyed by Hong Kong". Although the US Congress approved granting China "permanent normal trading relations" last year, the deal hinged on Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organisation. Joseph Borich, executive director of the Seattle-based Washington State China Relations Council, says the US wants to see the policy of "one country, two systems" work, given its enormous strategic and economic interests in the SAR.
Currently visiting Hong Kong, Mr Borich is seeking local views regarding Hong Kong's role. "I'm not that pessimistic. But I believe Hong Kong's role will change and I'm curious to find out what it will be. Certainly Hong Kong has a role. Previously it was the gateway to China. In future, it may be the gateway to a sub-market of China."
A White House source said earlier: "Hong Kong is not high on the agenda of foreign policy. The relationship will be good as long as Hong Kong remains good. The image of Tung has been tarnished. Every time he says something stupid, Hong Kong appears on the international radar screen again."
Kerry Dumbaugh, an Asian affairs specialist at the independent Congressional Research Service in the US capital, says although there are more concerns about Hong Kong's autonomy, it is still a long way from losing its special status as provided under the US-Hong Kong Policy Act in 1992. "I don't think the administration thinks about Hong Kong much. If anything, it will be about export control. This administration is more concerned about security issues and has criticised former President Bill Clinton for not satisfactorily guarding secrets."
A senior executive with Standard & Poor's rating agency in New York, Joydeep Mukherji, says: "I think Hong Kong will muddle through, as indicated by our A-plus rating, with a stable outlook."
Mr Tung will be keen to get across to his American hosts the message that all is well in Hong Kong, with no sign of overt interference from Beijing. The post-WTO Chinese economy will also open up new business opportunities for local and US firms. These are not difficult cases to argue. The tougher task is for him to address concerns about his leadership and subtle changes in society. Rightly or wrongly, he has been seen as too loyal to Beijing. He makes no secret of his conservative thoughts on civil liberties and democracy, but that contrasts sharply with his goal of Hong Kong being "Asia's World City". These talks are an opportunity to present himself and Hong Kong more clearly.
Chris Yeung ( ) is the Post's political editor and was a speaker at the Asia Society discussions.