Democracy by stealth

American money is being poured into Hong Kong and the mainland to strengthen the role of political parties and support pro-democracy organisations, writes Zach Coleman

Hong Kong is an unlikely candidate for development assistance. After all, the per-capita income of residents of the SAR is higher than that of Spain and New Zealand and is exceeded by only 15 countries. The SAR boasts clean drinking water, population growth is well under control and HIV/Aids is relatively rare.

Yet Hong Kong's political system remains in a kind of limbo _ neither democratic nor authoritarian. Top government officials both in Hong Kong and Beijing acknowledge that the system is not fully developed and Beijing last spring made clear, through the National People's Congress, that it intends to closely direct Hong Kong's political? development to slow any rush towards full democracy.?

In a darker vein, the current Legislative Council race has some fearing that Beijing's hand is behind the recent departures of controversial talk radio hosts and the eruption of scandals involving Democratic Party candidates. But regardless of whether Beijing has tried to shape the outcome of the Legco election, its preferences are hard to miss.

The same might be said of the United States. The bipartisan welcome? extended to former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee when he went? to Washington in March to testify before a US Senate subcommittee? underlined his status there as a favoured dissident leader in the? tradition of Lech Walesa or Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet Washington, like Beijing, is officially neutral about the outcome of the Legco election. It is forthright, however, about taking a position on the direction of Hong Kong's political development.

Take, for instance, the title subject of the hearing at which Lee testified, ``Democracy in Hong Kong.'' Under the 1992 US-Hong Kong Policy Act, ``support for democratisation'' is a fundamental principle of American policy towards the territory. Consul-General James Keith reaffirmed this in a newspaper column in March, writing: ``The United States strongly supports democratisation as the best way for Hong Kong to maintain its stability and prosperity as well as promote its autonomy.''

Washington gives more than just moral support to its call for democratisation, a goal it officially supports worldwide. Under late president Ronald Reagan, the US set up a network of five organisations, government-funded but ostensibly private, to promote democratic development abroad.?

Several of these groups have operated in Hong Kong for years, distributing cash and training activists. Though they too say they don't take sides, their promotion of democratic development inevitably enmeshes them in local politics.

The US is not alone in embracing the promotion of democratic development as a key plank of its foreign policy. Canada, Sweden, Australia and Germany also have government-backed political development agencies, but none of them has been active in Hong Kong.

``The issue of Hong Kong's future is of critical importance to the? whole region, as an issue in and of itself, and also as an indication? of China's attitude to big issues such as democratisation,''? acknowledges Roland Rich, director of Australia's Centre for? Democratic Institutions (CDI).

``But I don't think CDI is the right body to jump into this big issue, basically because CDI is such a small body [three full-time staff] and because our expertise is very much centred on Southeast Asia and the Pacific. I fear we would not be that much help with our fancy title not backed by solid China expertise.''

Canada's International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development has given grants to two Hong Kong-based advocacy groups, the Asia Monitor Resource Centre and China Labour Bulletin, that focus on labour rights elsewhere in the region, but has not backed any Hong Kong-focused programmes.?

``Having only limited resources, we are required to make difficult decisions regarding our areas of work,'' says programme officer Carole Samdup.

The governments of Australia and Canada both publicly raised human rights concerns over Hong Kong's proposed Article 23 security law last year. European governments have in the past sent teams to observe elections here, but Hong Kong is not a priority for their development aid.

Christine Chung, the China programme director for the US National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), says: ``Hong Kong is competing with Bangladesh and Indonesia.''

In NDI's eyes, Hong Kong is worthy of significant attention. Chung, who moved to the SAR two years ago, is reluctant about disclosing figures and keeps a low profile and an unlisted office number. But some of NDI's patrons and recipients are more forthcoming.

The Web site of local think tank SynergyNet thanks NDI for contributing HK$50,000 last year to underwrite research and a forum on governance in Hong Kong.?

The US-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) makes grants to both NDI, which is affiliated with the US Democratic Party, and the International Republican Institute, an arm of the Republican Party, along with other organisations supporting democracy. On its Web site? it mentions a US$179,999 (HK$1.4 million) grant to NDI last year ``to? provide technical assistance and training to Hong Kong political? parties to strengthen the role of parties in Hong Kong, and to support? pro-democracy civil society organisations in their efforts to draw? attention to the deterioration of political rights in the territory''.

The NED jealousy guards its independence and says its decisions are not directed by any branch of the American government. ``We make independent decisions,'' says Louisa Coan Greve, NED's senior programme officer for Asia. ``We do not weigh in on any side in a political competition.''?

Says Chung: ``We work on the premise that Hong Kong needs stronger political parties.'' She will not identify which political parties her trainers have worked with, but says she has offered to provide free help to every party in the territory in the form of setting up and operating district offices, communicating with members and recruiting volunteers.

American political consultants have been selling their services and teaching such skills in Taiwan and other places for a while, but this industry has yet to reach Hong Kong because of limited party finances and legal restrictions on spending. ``They know we don't have the money,'' says Frontier leader Emily Lau.?

This has made the Frontier and other groups receptive to NDI help. Lau says Frontier members have participated in NDI workshops on fundraising and campaigning. ``There is no other group that is doing this,'' she says.

The Democratic Party has had sessions with NDI advisers on image- building and presentation skills, among other topics, says central committee member Chan King-ming. The NDI also underwrote a programme that took several junior party members to the US for first-hand observation of the workings of government and political organisations there. Chan says this was particularly beneficial as many in the group had never had a chance to see how parties function in a democracy.

Members of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) have taken lessons on how to participate in media interviews, says policy committee chairman Greg So. ``I don't see a lot of that kind of training available in Hong Kong,'' he adds.?

The Liberal Party has recently received help from the NDI about conducting public opinion surveys as it set up its own polling centre.? ``We look forward to more frequent contact in the future,'' says chief executive Stephen Sze.

Hong Kong's parties are grateful but critical. Says Lau: ``I think the? situation in Hong Kong is very different from America, especially the ?limits on spending, so I don't think there is that much we can? emulate.''

Language is also a problem, says Chan, as sessions are conducted in English and the party members who could benefit most from training often don't have adequate English skills.

Trust is another issue. Chan says other parties have sometimes insisted on separate workshops. So says the DAB was initially wary that the NDI might pass intelligence on the party to rivals, given the US agenda in Hong Kong. ``A relationship had to be built up over time,'' he says. ``We have developed some mutual trust. They have not been pushing their own agenda.''

To what extent the parties can approach the NDI together will become evident this autumn when Chung puts on a party development conference together with the University of Hong Kong.

The NDI does push an agenda on another side of its activity in Hong Kong. As its Hong Kong Web page says: ``NDI's current programme provides support to activists advocating more representative political institutions and electoral and constitutional reforms.'' In this regard, NDI published a joint report with Civic Exchange on the accountability system and contributed to a SynergyNet and Civic Exchange project to publish a voter information pamphlet on the District Council election last year.

NDI's third focus in Hong Kong is tracking Hong Kong's political development for the benefit of decision-makers in Washington. On Wednesday, the group published a report on the electoral process in Hong Kong ahead of the Legco election, based on meetings in late July.? The report concluded that the SAR fell short of meeting international? standards in several categories, principally in failing to implement a? one-person, one-vote system and maintaining functional constituencies,? which it called ``fundamentally undemocratic''.

``Hong Kong is an incredibly complicated place,'' Chung says. ``It's amazing how much misinformation is out there. We can help Hong Kong? people by helping those outside Hong Kong understand in a more? intelligent way what is going on here.''

The American Centre for International Labor Solidarity, another government-funded group, has focused its activity in Hong Kong on collaboration with the Confederation of Trade Unions and other labour rights groups. The National Endowment for Democracy last year granted the Solidarity Centre US$260,434 to work with local groups to improve a Yuen Long worker training centre.

The NED's Web site says the Solidarity Centre also supported the Confederation of Trade Union's ``efforts to protest and draw international attention to the dangers of imminent anti-subversion legislation'', which led to the withdrawal of the legislation.? Solidarity Centre officials would not provide further details of their? group's work here, including what form the support to fight the? Article 23 legislation took, but did say the group does not maintain? an office here.

The NED itself takes pride in the defeat of the Article 23 legislation. Its Web site highlights the roles of the Confederation of Trade Unions and Human Rights Monitor, another grantee, in organising the July 1, 2003 march.?

``We are pleased that our grantees were successful in raising their? voices publicly in favour of civil liberties and stopping a? development in Hong Kong that would have further restricted civil? liberties,'' says the NED's Greve.?

Following the march, the NED's board approved several new Hong Kong grants. It raised the annual support given to Human Rights Monitor to US$60,000. Civic Exchange received a US$125,000 grant to analyse the functional constituency system. And NDI got its grant to work with political parties.?

``In response to greater civic activism, we said, `Yes, we will respond to support more of these activist groups,' '' Greve says.? ``NED's role is really to give resources to those with vision.''

Three months before the handover, the NED gave its annual democracy award _ a miniature version of the Goddess of Democracy figure erected by students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 _ to Martin Lee.

Not all American political development agencies are active in Hong Kong. The Centre for International Private Enterprise, a group promoting free markets, has had no programmes here. The International Republic Institute reopened an office in Hong Kong last year after a? two-year absence, but it is used only as a base for managing? programmes on the mainland, mostly centred on village elections. The International Republican Institute sent observer teams to two Hong? Kong elections before the handover.

``It is our opinion that Hong Kong has a robust civil society and that? at this time political parties in Hong Kong neither require nor desire? the kind of assistance and training that an organisation such as the? International Republican Institute could provide,'' says programme? officer Christine Beasley.?

``They are competent and well-organised and able to play a major role in bringing half a million people out into the streets.''

Ultimately, Washington hopes that the deepening of democracy in Hong Kong will eventually lead to democratisation of the mainland. The NED spends more than 10 times as much on mainland programmes as it does on those in Hong Kong, according to Greve. NDI's Chung also spends a greater chunk of her time on mainland programmes.

Though not all of Washington's programmes in the mainland are conducted with Beijing's consent, the capital does accept political development help. It would therefore be in an odd position to block? the same groups from operating in Hong Kong, even though the text of? Article 23 forbade ``foreign political organisations or bodies from? conducting political activities in the region'', or establishing ties? with local political groups.

Yet clearly Beijing is wary. Yu Keli, president of the Chinese Academy? of Social Sciences' Institute of Taiwan Studies, reportedly told a? forum in Beijing in August that mainland officials ``did not maintain? our work on [Hong Kong] intellectuals, and the US took the opportunity? to win over these people''.?

He cited the example of Democratic chairman Yeung Sam, who he noted had supported China's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong.?

``We left room for the US and Western countries to thoroughly promote their values without restraint and [thus] influence the intellectuals.''

The belief that Washington is pushing a democracy agenda in Hong Kong won't go away, and neither will the fear that Beijing is working to subvert progress toward democracy. Under one country, two systems, Hong Kong is a battleground for two competing worldviews: One, of an authoritarian state committed to economic growth with a minimum of political pluralism; the other, exemplified by the democratic camp and its international allies, a desire for a pluralistic political system.