Tiananmen's long shadow over HK

This file photo taken on June 2, 1989 shows hundreds of thousands of Chinese gathering around a 10-metre replica of the Statue of Liberty (centre), called the Goddess of Democracy, in Tiananmen Square demanding democracy despite martial law in Beijing. Families of those killed in the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on June 2, 2010 demanded that China end its silence and open a dialogue on the bloodshed. In an annual open letter, 128 members of the Tiananmen Mothers castigated the Communist Party government for ignoring its calls for openness on the crackdown that occurred on June 3-4, 1989 and vowed never to give up their fight.

SINGAPORe - The bloody crackdown on students demonstrating for democracy at the Tiananmen Square on June 4 in 1989 and its aftermath cast a long shadow on China's relations with Hong Kong, its special administrative region (SAR).

The crackdown resulted in sharply divergent political developments in the two places. While Hong Kong saw a need for speedy democratisation for itself, Beijing banned discussion of democracy in the mainland and frowned upon Hong Kongers' aspiration for it.

This divergent development has killed the optimism that had prevailed in the 1980s in Hong Kong over its eventual integration with the motherland. It has also caused some Hong Kongers to begin to worry about what awaits them when the pledge of "no change for 50 years" from 1997 expires 34 years from now in 2047.

Under the "one country two systems" unification model, Beijing resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong from the British in 1997, pledging no change to its political, economic, legal and social systems for 50 years.

Optimism in the 1980s over Hong Kong's political integration with China was built on several pillars. Foremost was the assurance that the "no change for 50 years" policy was not whimsical but based on solid analysis of China's long-term overall development up to 2050.

On April 16, 1987, Deng Xiaoping, then paramount leader and architect of the unification model, explained that by 2050, China would have caught up with the United States economically, thereby removing a major concern of most Hong Kongers about the huge economic gap between their city and the mainland then.

More importantly, Deng had envisaged that China would be carrying out political reform in tandem with economic ones, so that by 2050 it would have universal suffrage. This was what he said in 1987: "I have told a foreign guest that in the next century, or half a century later, we could have universal suffrage. Right now, universal suffrage is practised only at the grassroots level. At county-level and above, it is still indirect election."

At the time, most people read this as Deng's timetable for political reform. This statement went a long way to set people's minds at ease because it removed another worry about the huge political gulf between the two places.

Then there was the tacit recognition that the SAR was worthy of China's emulation.

On June 3, 1988 at his meeting with a group of international scholars, Deng said it would take China 50 years in the next (21st) century to develop itself into an advanced country. To achieve this aim, "China needs to create several Hong Kongs within the mainland".

This statement that there was a need to "create several Hong Kongs" showed that Deng endorsed the political and economic system of the then British colony, which though it did not have democratic elections had several democratic institutions such as rule of law, freedom of speech and freedom of association.

This positive attitude towards Hong Kong, as well as Deng's blueprint for universal suffrage in China by 2050, suggests that the supreme leader had envisaged a gradual convergence of the two systems within 50 years in favour of the Hong Kong system.

Finally, Deng's very liberal and undogmatic approach towards ideological differences also raised optimism. His treatment of patriotism is a case in point.

In a speech in June 1984, Deng defined what a patriot was, in reference to Hong Kongers: "A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong's prosperity and stability. Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism or even slavery. We don't demand that they be in favour of China's socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong."

This assured the people of Hong Kong that Beijing would not impose its ideology on the SAR, and was hence a great source of optimism.

But all these pillars of optimism were knocked down by the Tiananmen incident.

In the 24 years following the crackdown, there was no more mention of creating several Hong Kongs. To the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong to commemorate the incident reminds people of what the CCP had done and turns the SAR into a dangerous base for subversion. The CCP would not dare to multiply this.

Likewise, the political reform kicked off by Deng in 1984 ground to a halt in 1989. The universal suffrage that Deng had envisioned for China by 2050 had by then become a political taboo and even discussions of it were prohibited.

The convergence that Deng had envisaged before the crackdown had clearly been derailed. Worse still, his very liberal treatment of patriotism had been subtly revised. Now, in practice, to be patriotic, one has to endorse the CCP as well as socialism. This is a far cry from Deng's definition.

This political divergence has caused some Hong Kongers to doubt their future once again when the 50-year pledge comes to an end. It has also led to an embryonic separatist movement, unheard of in the past.

Few would have expected that the crackdown 24 years ago would continue to haunt relations between China and Hong Kong to this day, as well as the SAR's political future for the next 34 years