The Washington Post, December 13, 1995

What Makes Hong Kong Tick

By Martin C.M. Lee


HONG KONG -- On June 30, 1997, Hong Kong and its 6 million free citizens will become part of the People's Republic of China. As the countdown to 1997 advances, the people of Hong Kong should be hearing reassurances from China that we will be able to keep our freedoms and way of life. Instead, each day brings a new threat.
The latest has thrown Hong Kong into turmoil, both for the harm it will do to human rights and for the message it sends about China's plans for the future. In October China proposed scrapping key sections of Hong Kong's Bill of Rights and reinstating a number of repressive colonial laws that had been removed from the statute books because they violated the Bill of Rights.
On Nov. 15, Hong Kong's legislature fought back. The Legislative Council -- elected in September with a surprise majority for democrats -- passed, by a decisive 40-15 vote, a historic motion to condemn China's efforts to end human rights protection in Hong Kong.
That motion drew a line in the sand over human rights here -- and even had the support of a large number of pro-Beijing legislators. Even before the motion was debated, Chinese officials had declared that Hong Kong's legislature had no right to discuss the topic of the Bill of Rights. By defying Beijing, Hong Kong's people sent the message that our rights and freedoms will not be given up without a fight.
The Bill of Rights was enacted in 1991 as a confidence-building measure to allay fears raised by the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Thus it is not surprising that China's pledge to emasculate the Bill of Rights is having a devastating effect on future confidence in the rule of law.
The Bill of Rights -- known in Chinese asYan Kyun Faat , the Human Rights Law -- puts into domestic law the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, under which countries agree to a minimum standard of behavior toward their citizens. Britain and more than 80 countries worldwide have signed the covenant. China, however, has not. Beijing, in fact, sees the Bill of Rights as part of a conspiracy by "international anti-Chinese forces and the agents of the British side," according to its own New China News Agency.
The core problem is that China does not understand what makes Hong Kong tick. The People's Republic of China is an authoritarian Communist state. Hong Kong has always been a sanctuary from China, where the rule of law held sway and Hong Kong Chinese people were given economic and civil freedoms to make Hong Kong's the most successful economy in Southeast Asia.
In the past decade, the world has witnessed countless examples of authoritarian regimes changing into free societies -- from Eastern Europe to Asia. Regionally, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines have all progressed from authoritarian to representative governments, and other Asian countries are moving steadily in that
direction. But the world has no recent experience of a vibrant, cosmopolitan and extremely free society losing basic freedoms.
Hong Kong today has all the attributes of a pluralistic civil society: a robust press, clean and accountable government and a rule of law superior to any legal system in Asia. The proposal to scrap Hong Kong's Bill of Rights is the clearest indication yet that Beijing is trying to remake Hong Kong in China's image. Because China has been successful in luring international investment without improving human rights, Beijing may now believe it can sustain Hong Kong's economic success while clamping down on civil rights and freedoms.
In 1997, China is set to control all three branches of Hong Kong's government. Beijing says elected legislators will be turned out of office and replaced with a rubber-stamp appointed legislature. Hong Kong's top office, the chief executive, and his cabinet will all be appointed by Beijing. And China has ensured control of the Court of Final Appeal, Hong Kong's highest court, which will not be set up until after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.Thus all three branches of government are slated to be under China's control.
This is why the people of Hong Kong regard saving our Bill of Rights as our last-ditch battle. Just as the Bill of Rights is an important check on abuse of power by the British government today, so will it be an essential check on arbitrary use of power by China after 1997.
At least one senior Chinese leader clearly understands the value and fragility of Hong Kong's system. Last March the chairman of the powerful Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, Li Ruihuan, admitted errors in China's hard-line policy toward Hong Kong and appealed to his fellow leaders to handle Hong Kong with greater care in the future.
In a public speech, he used the metaphor of an old woman selling a valuable antique Yixing teapot. Tea drinkers know that the real value of the Chinese teapot lies in the residue of tea leaves that lines theinterior of the old pot. Through ignorance, however, the old woman scrubbed the teapot free of the stain, thereby destroying its worth
Mr. Li paraphrased the common-sense adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," pointing out, "If you don't understand how a valuable item works, you will never be able to keep it intact for a long time."
If, as it now appears, Chinese leaders do not understand how freedom, human rights and the rule of law have laid the foundation of Hong Kong's success, Beijing may scrub them out -- and destroy forever the value of Hong Kong, now and in the future.

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