The Slow Squeeze On Hong
By Martin C.M. Lee
- Today Hong Kong's top official, Chief Executive C. H. Tung, is to meet
with President Clinton in Washington as part of a trip meant to reassure
the American leadership and business community that Hong Kong's transfer
of sovereignty to China has been uneventful, that it is "business
as usual" and that there has been "no change" since July
1. Hong Kong people know better.
- No one would seriously assert that it was "business as usual"
in Washington if a U.S. president abolished an elected Congress, appointed
cronies and defeated candidates to a rump body and then manipulated electoral
laws to ensure that the next time there are elections his appointees are
returned to office.
- That is the situation now in Hong Kong. The new election law C. H.
Tung introduced in August was designed by the Preparatory Committee, the
same China-appointed body that abolished the legislature elected by more
than 1 million people in 1995, and the same body designed to guarantee
that pro-democracy candidates' perennially large share of the popular vote
will translate into a very small number of seats.
- On the surface, Hong Kong may appear to be much the same. Although
harsh new "national security" restrictions have been put in place,
to date no Hong Kong citizen has been imprisoned for peaceful demonstrations,
and reporters continue to report freely. To Tung's credit, he has not taken
advantage of these new laws passed by the appointed legislature at China's
behest. Still, they exist to restrict civil liberties we have always enjoyed
-- and there are no guarantees that the appointed legislature will not
be prevailed upon to rubber-stamp other new laws to restrict freedoms further.
- Despite the Sino-British Joint Declaration's guarantee of the rule
of law and "a high degree of autonomy," Hong Kong is slowly being
molded into a society in which the public has no effective voice in government
and the rule of law is eroded by the court's inability to interpret our
- Tung has initiated a pattern of changes that can best be described
as the "Singaporization" of Hong Kong. He regularly expresses
admiration for Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his so-called
"Asian values," in which democracy and freedom are subjugated
to government control. In Singapore, court challenges to the government
invariably fail, and libel laws are used to bankrupt opposition politicians.
Singapore has national elections but a peculiar democracy -- only one member
of an opposition party won in the last election.
- Tung's new election laws are nothing less than a great leap backward
for democracy in Hong Kong. The franchise in 30 of the legislature's 60
seats will be slashed from 2.7 million to 180,000, and "corporate
voting" -- one company, one vote -- will be reinstated.
- I recently pointed out to Tung that under his electoral proposals,
he was disenfranchising himself and all of his senior advisers. And even
in the 20 seats up for democratic election, he is initiating a proportional
representation system designed to cut democratic representation further
-- one that has been shown to confuse voters and cause corruption in Taiwan
- In August Chief Executive Tung shocked Hong Kong by calling for a watering
down of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- which sets out
basic freedoms for all citizens worldwide -- on the basis that it was imposed
by the West and does not reflect the views of developing countries. "I'm
sympathetic to this argument, I really am," he said. But Hong Kong
people are not sympathetic to Tung's use of Asian values to justify a rollback
of our bill of rights and to install electoral laws that tilt the playing
field against those whom Hong Kong people choose in free elections.
- Like Chinese leaders and Lee Kuan Yew, Tung argues that democracy and
civil liberties are Western. But Asians are no less capable of selecting
their leaders through popular elections than anyone else. Just ask the
Taiwanese, South Koreans or Filipinos. Instead of being a disruptive force,
elections and democratic reform have stabilized Hong Kong and provided
a channel for the public to articulate concerns throughout the critical
- It is no accident that talk of Asian values arises only in the context
of Asian leaders' attempting to justify authoritarian rule or seeking to
deflect criticism of a domestic human rights situation. Certainly there
are cultural differences between Asia and the West. But there is no difference
whatever when it comes to basic human rights and elections. Like Americans,
Hong Kong's people cherish democracy, the rule of law, press freedom and
the institutions of civil society. Indeed, the desire for freedom is why
so many of us -- or our parents -- fled mainland China in the first place.
- President Clinton has made the implementation of the Joint Declaration's
promise of an elected legislature a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Hong
Kong. Today he should ask Tung to reconcile his pledge of "a more
democratic form of government" after the hand-over with the bogus
electoral arrangements now being locked in place. Tung should know that
he can only be taken as seriously as the electoral arrangements he sets
- The president and other elected leaders should make clear to Tung that
these arrangements are unacceptable and have no place in a free society.
Tung, a businessman, needs to be reminded that recent history teaches that
in order to preserve economic success and the rule of law, there must be
genuine elections to guarantee that our government is accountable to the
- Hong Kong's people won limited democracy in our decade-long struggle
with the British colonial government. As elected leaders we are committed
to continuing this struggle in Hong Kong, now part of China. Hong Kong
people want democracy. They have participated in elections, seen democracy
work for them -- and will fight to get it back.
- The writer is chairman of what was Hong Kong's largest elective party
when China, taking back Hong Kong from Britain, ousted it in July.