Hong Kong protests: Western media reports biased against China, says Shanmugam

The United States, China and Hong Kong flags at a building near the main protest site in Harcourt Road in Hong Kong on Oct 4, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The United States, China and Hong Kong flags at a building near the main protest site in Harcourt Road in Hong Kong on Oct 4, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

There has been much anti-China bias in Western media's reporting on Hong Kong's situation, said Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, as he sought to offer another perspective on the current stand-off between Occupy Central protesters and the authorities that is now entering its eighth day.

Speaking to Lianhe Zaobao in an interview published on Saturday, Mr Shanmugam said that western media reports have made Beijing out to be "denying democracy" and acting to infringe on freedoms that have made Hong Kong so successful.

The truth, he said, is that Hong Kong did not have democracy during 150 years of British rule.

Beijing's proposal for Hong Kongers to elect their leader from a vetted list - what the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are currently amassed against - is actually much more than what the British had ever offered.

Before the handover to China in 1997, neither the British rulers nor the Hong Kong media thought Hong Kong needed democracy, he pointed out; universal suffrage was also not included in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the agreement that cemented the terms of the handover.

"The Western media does not report these facts," he said.

Mr Shanmugam put the Chinese government's hard line towards the Occupy Central protesters in the context of its overarching governance priorities.

At this stage in its development, China's primary goal is unity, progress and a better life for 1.3 billion people, he said, and its leadership believes that it can achieve this only by good governance and avoiding the ills of multi-party democracy.

China's GDP per capita today is US$6,800 (S$8,708), and Chinese leaders will want to achieve the goal of becoming a moderately prosperous country before they will contemplate any move to democratise.

Two examples confirm Beijing's belief, he noted.

First is the dysfunction and partisan gridlock of the political system in the United States, which has deteriorated to the point of being unable to pass a budget for years or address any pressing governance issues like immigration reform, improving public education or handling crime and violence.

Because of short electoral cycles, the US government is also unable to plan for the long-term, he said.

China, as a poorer, less developed country, believes that it "cannot afford the luxury of such dysfunctionality", he said.

The second reaffirming example Beijing looks to is the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, which Chinese leaders see as a cautionary tale of what happens when political restructuring precedes economic reform.

In the 1980s, Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev implemented a policy of glastnost - openness - as the Soviet Union tried to reform, unleashing democratising forces that ultimately unseated his own government.

"So China will be firm: it is not going to institute any major political change to copy the Western models - in the short term," he said.

"The leadership will believe that any such move will be disastrous for China and will hurt the people of China," he added.

And since whatever happens in Hong Kong can have an impact on the rest of China, giving in to the protesters' demands, from Beijing's point-of-view, may affect the stability of China as a whole, he noted.

This perspective, said Mr Shanmugam, "is entirely understandable".

China is also suspicious of the protests and wonders if Western countries have a hand in stoking up sentiment, he noted.

Mr Shanmugam said that it must be asked if the average Hong Konger is prepared for the trade-offs of a protracted stand-off with Beijing.

"There needs to be clear understanding that China has acted in accordance with the Basic Law," he said, referring to Hong Kong's mini Constitution that enshrines the "one country, two systems" principle.

"If Hong Kongers want a change from the Basic Law - they have to recognise that Hong Kong is part of China, and there are some things China will accept, and some things which are red lines for China."

"And there needs to be a clear understanding of Hong Kong's extreme reliance on China for jobs and (its) livelihood," he said, adding: "There needs to be a clear understanding of China's largesse towards Hong Kong even as an anti-China mood is stoked up."

Mr Shanmugam believed that the Occupy Central protests will not affect Singapore.

rchang@sph.com.sg