The Weekly Standard, February 24, 1997

Hong Kong into China's jaws


By Martin Lee

WHEN MIDNIGHT STRIKES on the last day of June, Hong Kong will be delivered into the hands of Communist China, ending 150 years of British colonial rule. For years, some hoped that this event would mark China's readmission into the family of nations and that Hong Kong would make China friendlier to human rights, the rule of law, and international trade. But it is no longer possible to hold any illusions. China has repeatedly broken its agreements to allow Hong Kong's people to keep their elected legislature and the laws guaranteeing their freedoms. China is not becoming more like Hong Kong; China is methodically remaking Hong Kong in its own image.

On December 21, Beijing appointed a puppet legislature to replace the last institution in Hong Kong that it did not control: the Legislative Council. Fourteen months earlier, over a million Hong Kong citizens had gone to the polls to elect a legislature for what was supposed to be a four-year term. In the face of Chinese threats, they overwhelmingly chose candidates who had pledged to stay in Hong Kong and fight for Hong Kong's freedoms, rule of law, and way of life. China has now irrevocably reversed the results of those historic elections by appointing a 60-member "provisional legislature" that will serve as the principal vehicle for the mainland's repression of Hong Kong.

There is nothing very provisional about this sham legislature. It held its first meeting at the end of January in China and will function there until next June's transfer, taking over once Hong Kong's genuine representatives are turned out. It is set to operate for an additional year, during which time an incalculable amount of damage can be done.

We have already received a sneak preview of what to expect from Chinese rule in Hong Kong and an insight into why China's rulers felt it imperative to install a rubberstamp legislature. In January, another of the ubiquitous Beijing-appointed bodies, the Preparatory Committee, announced that Hong Kong's most important law, the Bill of Rights, would soon be effectively repealed and that new laws on "subversion" would be imposed, along with the restoration of old colonial laws against demonstrations and organizations. The Bill of Rights is the most important statute ever enacted by Hong Kong's legitimate legislature. Passed in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it gives Hong Kong courts the ability to guard the rights of Hong Kong's 6.3 million people, including freedom of speech, the right to assemble, and protection against arbitrary arrest. Beijing's proposed gutting of the Bill of Rights provides a chillingly clear picture of Hong Kong's future under Chinese control.

It was not supposed to be this way. When Great Britain and China signed the Joint Declaration in 1984, the treaty was registered at the United Nations and hailed by the United States and all around the world. The treaty promised that Hong Kong's people would have their own elected legislature, an executive accountable to that legislature, an independent judiciary, and a " high degree of autonomy." The basis of the transfer of Hong Kong to China was "one country, two systems" -- that is, China would not efface Hong Kong's distinctiveness.

Over a decade later, this agreement is in tatters. The "provisional legislature" violates the Joint Declaration's guarantees and breaches Beijing's own constitution for Hong Kong, the Basic Law. Indeed, the Chinese government did not appoint this body in Hong Kong itself because I, in my capacity as an elected legislator and party head in Hong Kong, threatened to get an injunction from Hong Kong's High Court to block its establishment and operation within Hong Kong.

Even some of China's defenders are shocked by Beijing's brazen decision to set up a parallel legislature in China. To aggravate the injury, 10 of the 60 legislative appointees are pro-Beijing figures who had been rejected by Hong Kong citizens at the polls in 1991 and 1995 and who now have every incentive to invent new electoral laws that will protect them from further humiliation in legitimate elections. The appointment of the legislature signals the end of the rule of law in Hong Kong and the beginning of China's rule of man -- yahn ji -- in which the state is above the law and dictates to individuals. C. H. Tung, the chief executive tapped in December by Beijing, has unsurprisingly endorsed China's plans to negate Hong Kong's Bill of Rights.

What shocks the people of Hong Kong as much as the appointed legislature is the refusal of the United States and other democratic countries to object. The world has an interest in the continuance of Hong Kong as a free society. Nations eager to expand trade with China should not forget that Hong Kong provides the rule of law, level playing field, and free flow of information that make doing business in China itself viable. American and other businessmen who are otherwise unconcerned about Hong Kong's fate should consider the difficulties of trade if economic information, for example, is radically restricted in Hong Kong after the transfer, as it is now in China. (When investing in China, it is the bad news that is the hardest, but the most important, to get.)

The world looks the other way at its peril. No other single factor will say more about the future direction of China than its handling of Hong Kong. President Clinton and his new secretary of state are said to be rethinking America's China policy. China's rulers can and must be convinced to honor their international promises. The U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, passed by Congress in 1992, in fact commits the United States as a matter of law to support democratic institutions in Hong Kong and should be used to encourage Beijing to put an end to its puppet legislature.

The bosses in Beijing clearly hope that by sacking Hong Kong's legitimate leaders and replacing them with proxies, the people will be silenced. In this, they will not succeed. My fellow elected legislators and I intend to stay in Hong Kong no matter what. We will fight to keep our home the free and prosperous society that it is today. Hong Kong's people have known democracy - - they have seen it at work -- and although representative government may be briefly shut down after 1997, our citizens will continue to carry their aspirations in their hearts. The flame of freedom may flicker; but it will not be snuffed out.

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