The Magazine

Severe Acute Tyranny Syndrome

Beijing tightens the vice on Hong Kong.

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By ELLEN BORK
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IN A FEW WEEKS, China will further extend its control over Hong Kong. Laws on subversion, treason, and sedition, among others, will be enacted by the partially elected legislature, whose anti-democratic members hold the majority under the Beijing-drafted constitution known as the Basic Law. Indeed, enactment of the national security measures is required by Article 23 of the Basic Law. It is part and parcel of China's clever Hong Kong strategy: Create a veneer of legality by adopting elaborate procedures and institutional arrangements, and the international community will stand aside.

That is exactly what the United States has done. The only country with enough clout to contest the slow but steady tightening of Beijing's grip, the United States has failed to make an issue of the national security laws, as it has of many other bad developments since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Most recently, the top U.S. official in Hong Kong, Consul General James Keith, said that "decisions on Article 23 legislation are something for Hong Kong people to make," glossing over the fact that Hong Kong's people do not get to make these decisions.

To be fair, Keith's disingenuousness is official policy. Since before the handover, Washington has maintained that everything in Hong Kong is going well. That's true only if you are a Chinese official. China picks the chief executive. China's proxies in the legislature block the elected democrats, for example, from preventing a rollback of democratic practices in local government. When necessary, China, invited by its proxies, steps in to interfere with the Hong Kong judiciary, although the courts were promised independence.

All of this was foreseeable as early as 1984, when the deal between China and Great Britain was done. Deng Xiaoping had made clear that the mainland's interpretation of "one country, two systems" was entirely different from the West's. But Washington preferred to remain neutral about China's plans for Hong Kong's so-called autonomy. As assistant secretary of state Winston Lord told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1996, the United States was not entitled to judge whether China's treatment of Hong Kong conformed to its promises. "The United States," said Lord, "does not offer legal interpretations of agreements to which it is not a party."

But this was an abdication. Under U.S. law, the State Department is required to report on how China lives up to its promises to leave Hong Kong alone, and the president is charged with determining whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to merit its separate treatment under U.S. law in such matters as export controls.

But enough talk of legality. Hong Kong's new national security laws will be enforced not openly, as in a democratic system, but indirectly, by an arbitrary and repressive regime that locks up its own democratic activists and regards Hong Kong as a base for subversion of the mainland.

For many years now, the United States has swallowed every infringement of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, finding each one justified under China's constitutional arrangements. Although for years, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill pushed administrations of both parties to mean what they said about defending Hong Kong's rights and freedoms, even Congress, with few exceptions, has recently fallen silent on the issue.

Yet something can be done. A delegation of democrats from Hong Kong arrives in Washington this week, seeking support for their struggle. Some Hong Kong democrats favor convening a constitutional convention. Of course, China would object. American officials would rather not deal with this either, feeling they have much bigger concerns to manage with Beijing. They should realize, however, that supporting democracy in Hong Kong would strengthen American influence with China, not to mention helping mainland democracy activists, who, unlike those in Hong Kong, serve long prison terms.

For the record, deputy State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker affirmed last fall that "a democratically elected government, answerable to the will of the people, is the best way to ensure the protection of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong." So on that much there is agreement.

Hong Kong's people get little attention these days (aside from SARS, which their undemocratic government badly mishandled by imitating Beijing's approach). The pro-democracy delegation--whose members include politicians, a free labor activist, and a representative of the press--deserves the full attention of members of Congress and the Bush administration. That is much less than Hong Kong's people were promised when they were returned to Chinese rule.

Ellen Bork is deputy director of the Project for the New American Century.