The Asian Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, July, 1997

We Will Guard Hong Kong's Freedoms

By Martin C.M. Lee

Today Hong Kong's history comes full circle. Most Hong Kong people, including my family, arrived here as refugees from political instability in China and determined to pursue a better life in a free territory. The country we left behind will now have sovereignty over Hong Kong, and we must stand firm against any efforts to erode the freedoms and way of life our people risked so much to reach.

When I was 12, my family arrived in Hong Kong on the last plane out of Guangzhou, China. After the Communists crossed the Yangtze river in 1949 during China's tumultuous civil war my father, Li Yinwo, decided to bring his family to Hong Kong. He had been a KMT general and a member of the Chinese Nationalist governmentís anti-corruption assembly, but hated that decadence and corruption of the Nationalists. Though he could have easily escaped to Taiwan, he did not want to live out his life serving such a government. At the time, no one knew if the Communist troops would stop at the Hong Kong border, or sweep into Hong Kong the way they had across China. But my parent gambled that even with this uncertainty, at least for a time their five children would have a better life in Hong Kong, with its freedom and rule of law.

In the end, China of course did not invade Hong Kong and today assumes sovereignty over its 400 square miles and 6.5 million people. My story is noteworthy only because there is nothing at all unique about it. The majority of Hong Kong people are refugees from political upheaval in China or children of such parents. I have heard many accounts of families who swam three days through shark-infested waters -- of those who didn't make it, of those who were caught, sent back to China and imprisoned, only to try again. Refugees came in waves, especially during China's civil war and then when its Cultural Revolution swelled Hong Kong's population to over six million today from 600,000 at the end of World War II.

Thus Hong Kong was for most Hong Kong people an idea first: the idea of a free place where free men and women could chart their own destiny. It is frequently asserted by outsiders and Beijing's apologists in Hong Kong that our people do not care about freedom; that they are "only interested in making money," as the cliche usually runs. I wish to argue that there is no people in the world with a better understanding and appreciation of what freedom means, built on personal, often tragic experience--or a stronger determination to keep their freedom.

Hong Kong has been named the world's most free and competitive economy by studies such as the Heritage Foundation/The Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom and the World Economic Forum. This is no accident. Markets, like elections, are applied freedom. It is true that Hong Kong people are very good at making money, but in fact our economic success story is a byproduct of freedom: economic freedom, exercised to the full by Hong Kong's industrious immigrants and refereed by the rule of law.

And although Hong Kong people have only had democratic elections since 1990, we have for decades had the benefits of democracy including clean and accountable government, a free press, an independent judiciary and a civil society. Hong Kong was promised by Britain and China that under the "one country, two systems" model we would have "a legislature constituted by elections."All of our present day "rights and freedoms" would continue under the 1984 Joint Declaration, the international treaty sealing Hong Kong's handover to China which takes place today. These solemn international guarantees were used to seek the support of the U.S. and the democratic nations of the world and formed the basis of the peaceful transfer not just of Hong Kongís land, but of its people.

But the importance of freedom and its attributes of the rule of law underpinned by an elected legislature is not understood by Hong Kong's future rulers. Nor is it being respected.

The distinguishing characteristic of the Chinese government's rule in China is its intervention in the economic, political and social aspects of life. Indeed, recent pronouncements by Chinese leaders indicate they do not comprehend the damage which can be done by interference in these features of Hong Kong's system.

China's first act of sovereignty--in full view of the international community--will be to extinguish the legislature elected to a four-year term in September 1995 by over a million people. Shortly after midnight, a so-called Provisional Legislature, chosen by 400 people, themselves handpicked by Beijing, will take office and pass laws for Hong Kong for at least a year. This appointed body, which contains many members who were in fact defeated in Hong Kong's last elections, has already been purporting to legislate for Hong Kong in China and this month put in place new restrictions on public assembly and societies based on the ambiguous and dangerous concept of "national security."

Freedom and the rule of law are not just abstract theories to Hong Kong people. Freedom brought our parents here. It is what protected us from the regular political upheavals in China, delivered us out of poverty and enabled Hong Kong to become the eighth largest trading center in the world.

In the process, Hong Kong has become a moderate society where people peacefully express their political views through their elected representatives, free press and freedom of assembly. This June 4, as they have done for the last seven years, Hong Kong parents brought their children to gather outdoors in Hong Kongís Victoria Park to commemorate the 1989 democratic student movement in China. Since the Tiananmen Square crackdown was a catalyst for Hong Kongís own organized pro-democracy movement, these annual observances have also always been a focus for Hong Kong citizensí own democratic aspirations for Hong Kong and our country, China.

Earlier this month, China-selected Chief Executive designate Tung Chee Hwa warned Hong Kong people to drop the "baggage" of Tiananmen Square. Instead, some 55,000 children and grandchildren of refugees from China filled Hong Kong's Victoria Park to commemorate the anniversary of the crackdown with a candlelight vigil and to call for the preservation of democracy and freedom in Hong Kong.

My parents and their generation risked everything to make it to freedom in Hong Kong. My generation will do what it takes to preserve it.

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