The Magazine

Don't Write Off Hong Kong

Democracy there deserves Washington's support.

Jul 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 44 • By ELLEN BORK
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THIS MONTH, Hong Kong has been swept up in the most dramatic events since its 1997 return to Chinese rule. On July 1, half a million people marched to protest new national security laws that would threaten rights of association, press, and religion. Next, the defection of a leading pro-Beijing politician from the government's camp set off a chain of political events. The enactment of the security legislation was postponed, and last Wednesday night two cabinet-level officials who have been targets of discontent resigned: Regina Ip, the secretary for security, known for her hostility to democracy, and Antony Leung, the financial secretary embroiled in a scandal over his purchase of a Lexus weeks before he raised car taxes.

Still, unless Hong Kong's people continue to press for democracy and the international community takes up their cause, Tung Chee-hwa, the extremely unpopular Beijing-appointed chief executive, will probably survive politically to implement the new laws on subversion, treason, and theft of state secrets. And if that happens, little will remain of this extraordinary moment of opportunity. But whatever the outcome, recent events have destroyed two myths concerning Hong Kong. The first is that Beijing is not deeply involved in its affairs. The second is that its people apathetically accept the undemocratic government imposed on them by Beijing. The collapse of these propositions requires an overhaul of U.S. policy toward Hong Kong. Before that can happen, Washington has to take Hong Kong as seriously as Beijing does.

Beijing behaves as though it has a lot at stake in Hong Kong. Enactment of the national security laws, required by Beijing in Article 23 of the Basic Law it drafted for Hong Kong, was kicked off last year with a directive from Chinese vice premier Qian Qichen. Furthermore, according to a scholar of the Chinese legal system, the content and form of the security proposals indicate they were drafted on the mainland. Chinese officials and state media have also revealed their deep involvement, as they have rejected as interference international calls for a transparent process and other steps toward democracy in Hong Kong.

Beijing sees a link between events in Hong Kong and Communist party control on the mainland, and not without reason. The march on July 1 was the largest political demonstration on Chinese territory since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Concerned about the political impact on the rest of China, Beijing ordered the media and Internet portals not to report the march and censored CNN. Beijing's top leaders held an emergency meeting of the Politburo. Also, since the demonstrations, China has sent mainland officials, including intelligence officers, to assess the situation in Hong Kong. Ominously, on July 14, the China Daily denounced the protests as a "vehicle for subverting the political system."

Washington, on the other hand, treats Hong Kong as if it were a discrete matter, virtually unaffected by the mainland. Ever since the 1997 handover, the United States has politely ignored China's interference. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, the United States has insisted that Hong Kong is enjoying the autonomy and freedoms it was promised. American officials stress the integrity of the Hong Kong government and carefully discuss the future of its political system without reference to Beijing. White House and State Department statements on the national security laws and the resulting protests made no mention of Beijing. President Bush did not raise the issue of Hong Kong in his June 1 meeting with newly minted president and Communist party general secretary Hu Jintao at the recent G-8 summit.

Paradoxically, while pretending that China is not central to Hong Kong's affairs, the United States relies entirely on Beijing's blueprint for governing Hong Kong. In 1999, American officials accepted Beijing's meddling in a major ruling by Hong Kong's highest court as unfortunate but consistent with the terms of Hong Kong's governance. More recently, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly gave the impression that future democracy is assured under the Basic Law. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Kelly stated the Basic Law calls for "further steps to enlarge democracy by 2007." Unfortunately, this is incomplete. Expansion of democratic seats in the legislature ends in 2007--when 30 of the total 60 seats will be filled by democratic election. And read the fine print: The annexes to the Basic Law require any plans for changing the composition of the legislature or choosing the chief executive to be approved by the undemocratic legislature and the Beijing-appointed chief executive.