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The Autumn of Hong Kong

Increasingly, it’s one country, one system.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By ELLEN BORK
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Unable to hold their leaders account-able at the ballot box, Hong Kong’s people rely on public demonstrations to blunt efforts to roll back their political and civil rights. In 2003, the march on the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule forced the abandonment of a plan to impose new antisubversion legislation and forced the resignation of the secretary for security who’d championed the bill. This past July, the marchers focused on the Hong Kong government’s attempt to do away with by-elections for legislative vacancies. Aiming to avoid a repeat of the 2010 “referendum” on democracy, the government proposed a change in the election law so that, in the event a seat became vacant, the second-place candidate—in other words, the loser—would take the seat. After the march, which was estimated to be the largest in recent years, the government postponed consideration of the bill. 

In some matters, the people of Hong Kong have little power to wield as their own government increasingly takes on the character of the sovereign government in Beijing. In mid-September, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Ambrose Lee, went to Tibet to “exchange views on matters of mutual interest” with public-security officials.

Another cable released by Wiki-Leaks reported that in 1999, the entire bench of Hong Kong’s highest court nearly resigned when Beijing overruled it using a provision of the Basic Law. This year for the first time, the court itself, as opposed to the Hong Kong government, voted narrowly to ask Beijing to determine which approach to sovereign immunity—Hong Kong’s or Beijing’s—the court should apply in a case involving a commercial suit against the government of Congo. Beijing directed the court to use the CCP’s broader definition, in which states are immune in commercial matters, rather than the “restricted” approach previously applied by Hong Kong, which allows states to be sued in commercial matters. 

The ruling is expected to under-mine Hong Kong’s standing as an international business center. For Hong Kong’s people, the damage may be even greater, now that Beijing has cloaked its right to do virtually anything it wishes in a legal principle of its own creation.

Ellen Bork is director for democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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