HONG KONG IS coming up on the 10th anniversary of its reversion to Chinese rule in 1997. At the time, the gloss on turning over more than six million people to Communist rule was that Hong Kong's freedom and rule of law would influence the mainland, rather than the other way around. Another rationale went that Chinese leaders would at least tread carefully because they hoped to entice Taiwan into unifying with the mainland under the "one country, two systems" arrangement that supposedly applies in Hong Kong. Neither scenario has been borne out by events.

Consider what one of Hong Kong's top officials said the other day: Taiwan's democracy is a "negative lesson" for Hong Kong. Stephen Lam, the secretary for constitutional affairs, was responding to remarks by Taiwanese officials endorsing full democracy for Hong Kong via that subversive tool, the teleconference.

The leadership in Beijing expects no less from its proxies. Mr. Lam, ostensibly in charge of Hong Kong's political development, knows as well as anyone how poorly Hong Kong compares politically with Taiwan. Mr. Lam's disparagement of Taiwan's "black gold politics," or corrupt influences on elections, was equally ridiculous given the Communist party's "united front" campaign to co-opt Hong Kong tycoons, politicians, and media outlets.

While Taiwan has moved peacefully from dictatorship to democracy, Hong Kong's democratic development is stalled indefinitely. Only half of the legislature's seats are elected and the chief executive is chosen by Beijing and ratified by a committee of 800 people most of whom are also chosen by Beijing. The purported commitment to democracy Beijing made in its 1984 agreement with Great Britain over the island's return, in fact, only made it a vague, "ultimate aim."

Viewed in the context of statements by Communist party leaders at the time, there was never any reason to take it seriously. London, however, decided its future relations with Beijing, and the proximity of People's Liberation Army troops, dictated a deal. Washington stayed silent. Pledges to safeguard Hong Kong's autonomy were made only after it was too late and without conviction. The resulting arrangements paid lip service to autonomy but guaranteed Beijing control. When necessary, Beijing has intervened to reign in the judiciary and make clear that it, not Hong Kong's people, will decide when any further expansion of democracy will take place.

One of the more subtle, but insidious developments over the past ten years has been the rise of "patriotic" thinking that Mr. Lam's remarks reflect. For the PRC, attitudes toward Taiwan and its "splittist" citizens are the ultimate test of "patriotism." The island's successful democratization has only heightened sensitivities. Mao Tse-tung worried about the arrival of democracy on Taiwan, recognizing he stood a better chance of cutting a deal with Chiang Kai-shek than with any elected leader. For a long time, Beijing's leaders had an ally in Chiang who was just as hostile to democracy, seeing it as an obstacle to his own deluded vision of "one China." Both Mao and Chiang distrusted Taiwan's western-oriented liberals whom they feared would draw Taiwan too close to the United States.

Ultimately, that is exactly what happened. After President Nixon adopted the "one China" policy, and President Carter broke relations with Taipei, Chiang Ching-kuo, the Generalissimo's son and successor, recognized Taiwan's fragile position. He began to democratize his government, recruiting native Taiwanese, who make up 85% of the island's population, into the minority, mainlander Kuomintang (KMT) party and lifted martial law, beginning a reform process that was carried on after his death by his vice president, later elected president, Lee Teng-hui. It is no accident that Deng Xiao-ping, who devised the "one country, two systems" model with Taiwan in mind, soon turned his focus to acquiring Hong Kong from the British.

Without 100 miles of water and the United States to protect it, Hong Kong's prospects for democracy are more remote than Taiwan's. Nevertheless, Hong Kong's people have displayed their desire for democracy and civil liberties at every opportunity. Only an electoral system skewed by Beijing prevents them from commanding a majority in the legislature.

Beijing wants its "Taiwan compatriots" to come back to the "motherland." Its dubious methods of persuasion include not only missile volleys and international isolation, but also the "negative lesson" of Hong Kong's experience under Chinese rule.

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

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