Civil liberty must be saved in Hong Kong

In less than three months, political leaders throughout the capitalist world are certain to focus a common gaze on the reuniting of the British colony of Hong Kong and Communist China. Widespread concerns that Hong Kong’s thriving democracy is in serious danger of disappearing are well-founded. China’s hand-picked leader of Hong Kong’s new government, Tung Chee-hwa, announced last week that he plans to curb a range of civil rights. The proposed changes will essentially make illegal currently tolerated dissent against the colony’s government.
As a leading supporter of Hong Kong’s popularly elected government, the Clinton administration must put more effort into safeguarding the colony’s political liberties before the July 1 reversion. So far, the president has remained far too reticent to Chinese declarations that liberal laws protecting political liberties in Hong Kong will soon be retracted. If the administration doesn’t make it immediately clear to Beijing that the U.S. ardently disapproves of its intentions to stamp out Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights, the merger is certain to curtail America’s political and economic relations with both Hong Kong and China.
Clinton’s belated decision to meet with Hong Kong’s leading democratic politician, Martin Lee, is an important first step. Inviting Lee to the White House sends a strong signal to China that the U.S. intends to stand behind the colony’s democratic political system even after the reversion. Lee, who has been touring the U.S. throughout the last week, is considered by many to be Hong Kong’s democratic conscience. For more than a decade, he has sought to preserve the colony’s civil liberties.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s announcement on Tuesday that she intends to travel to Hong Kong to attend the reversion ceremonies in July will also alleviate some of the mounting impression that the U.S. doesn’t care about what happens to Hong Kong’s political system after the reversion. Clinton and Albright must use these opportunities to make it apparent to China that it is unlikely to secure permanent most-favored nation status from Congress if it insists on replacing the colony’s independent government with an authoritarian regime. The economics of that reality may persuade Beijing to keep the promise it made in its 1984 agreement with Britain not to disturb Hong Kong’s legal system and capitalist economy after the reversion.
Under the Chinese-British agreement of 1984, Beijing promised to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms under a “one nation, two systems” formula. In the years since the deal was struck, Hong Kong has grown into an oasis of freedom in the region, with an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, and a fervent devotion to unfettered capitalism. China, however, has demonstrated that it has no intention of keeping its promise.
More pronounced opposition to Beijing’s refusal to adhere to its initial promise to respect Hong Kong’s way of life is long overdue. More is at stake than the rights of the colony’s 6 million citizens. If Hong Kong’s liberties are preserved, they will provide an example for China that open markets don’t require an authoritarian regime. But if democratic rights in Hong Kong vanish, the prospects for democratization in Beijing, including U.S. demands that it respect human rights, are certain to be set back.