The Asian Wall Street Journal, December 12, 1996

Can Tung Transcend the System?

By Martin C.M. Lee


"When there is a good system, even evil men cannot do evil. But when there is no good system, even good men cannot do good, and may be forced to do evil." -- Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader

Hong Kong faces one of the crucial challenges of its transfer of sovereignty to China with yesterday's appointment of the territory's first chief executive, Hong Kong tycoon C.H. Tung. Hand-picked by a 400-member committee that was itself appointed by Beijing, Mr. Tung must now prove to Hong Kong people and the world that he is better than the unrepresentative system that produced him. Though by all accounts he is a good man, the unaccountable system he now joins and China's demands of him may cause Mr. Tung to allow the erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms.

The appointment of a chief executive represents a great opportunity for China, a chance to repair the frayed confidence in Hong Kong's handover and to return to the crippled policy of "one country, two systems." But because of the anti-democratic process through which Mr. Tung was selected and the enormous executive powers he has inherited, it also represents an unprecedented opportunity for control and mismanagement of Hong Kong's fragile free society.

In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration agreeing the terms of the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China, Beijing promised Hong Kong people that their freedoms and way of life would continue unchanged for 50 years without interference from China. The chief executive, "chosen by elections or consultations," was to be accountable to a legislature elected by Hong Kong citizens. But all evidence thus far is that Mr. Tung assumes this job with both hands tied. China's policy of "one country, two systems" has already been turned on its head.

Next week -- on Dec. 21 -- China will appoint its own legislature to pass laws for Hong Kong from the mainland. It will operate simultaneously with Hong Kong's legitimate legislature, which was elected in September 1995 to a four-year term. China's new legislature will be Beijing's vehicle for remaking Hong Kong laws in China's image and will shatter already fragile confidence in Hong Kong's future under Chinese rule. Instead of "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy" as the U.N.-registered treaty promised, China now clearly intends to rule Hong Kong through its appointed Hong Kong puppets, with a high degree of control.

Hong Kong people have never had any say in who their chief executive will be, but through the ballot box in every election since 1991, they have voted for representatives who would defend Hong Kong's basic freedoms and way of life. What Hong Kong needs now is not a spokesman for China -- Hong Kong has more than enough of those already. We need a leader who will defend Hong Kong when Chinese leaders insist on meddling.

It is not only democratically elected leaders in Hong Kong who are voicing fears about Beijing's intent to control Hong Kong. Even top mainland businessmen recognize that a "hands-on" policy by Beijing could spell the end of the territory's success story. In December last year, Larry Yung Chi-kin, the chairman of China's largest trading company in Hong Kong, CITIC Pacific, and son of China's Vice President Rong Yiren, warned of Beijing's attempts to interfere in Hong Kong after June 1997. Stating that it was Hong Kong's responsibility to "stand up against such interference," Mr. Yung added that the problem would be compounded if the new administration in Hong Kong "bends over backward to accommodate these wishes. There is a real possibility that this could happen."

Mr. Yung is correct. Defending Hong Kong's autonomy from Beijing's interference must be Mr. Tung's top priority. But to date, there is little evidence that he is up to the task. In his few public comments thus far, the chief executive designate has seemed willing to echo China's line: in his statements that Hong Kong must have an appointed legislature and that this illegitimate body must pass a repressive new law on "subversion," in his proposal that the Chinese Communist Party be legalized in Hong Kong, in his warning of "international forces hoping to use Hong Kong in a campaign to isolate China," and in his statements that democrats in Hong Kong are "anti-China," when on the contrary we fully support the transfer of sovereignty to China. He has shown no sensitivity to Hong Kong people's fears about the revocation of the Bill of Rights or Beijing's impending appointment of a legislature with a number of members whom Hong Kong people have soundly rejected at the polls.

As China originally promised, we the Hong Kong people should be left alone to govern Hong Kong as we know best. If Chinese leaders try to rule Hong Kong from Beijing, it will be like trying to steer a toy car by remote control from a distant room. The car is bound to crash blindly around. This will be disastrous both to Hong Kong and to China, because Chinese leaders will find out too late the fragility of Hong Kong's system of interlinked political and economic freedoms.

In the 200 days remaining until the transfer of sovereignty, it is up to Mr. Tung and to Chinese leaders to prove their intent to Hong Kong and the world. The new chief executive can empower Hong Kong people to defend our system -- or he can be the agent of its destruction. The choice is his to make, and the world is watching.

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