USA Today, February 17, 1999

Hong Kong Needs World's Attention

By Martin C.M. Lee

Aside from President Clinton's visit to Hong Kong during the U.S.-China summit meetings last summer, and the Hong Kong government's massive intervention in the stocks and futures markets in August, there has been little news in Western papers about this former British colony, which is now in its second year of self-rule within China.

No news is not necessarily good news. There have been a number of serious developments, culminating with China's official criticism of a major ruling by a Hong Kong court. This is no arcane legal controversy. It affects Hong Kong's survival as a free society, something every American who cares about freedom and the global economy should think about.

Very simply, the background is this: China promised that Hong Kong would be allowed to run its own affairs, with the exception of defense and foreign policy. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping coined the phrase "one country, two systems" to explain how Hong Kong, a mainly free society, and China, ruled by the Communist Party, would live side by side.

More specifically, Beijing promised to preserve Hong Kong's world-renowned legal system and respect the judgments and independence of its courts. Beijing's promises were taken very seriously by the international community -- especially the United States, which has a great stake in Hong Kong continuing to thrive as an international financial center where contract rights are enforced and corruption is not tolerated.

Then a case involving immigration law went all the way to the highest Hong Kong court, which ruled against the Hong Kong government and spelled out basic principles. For example, it said Hong Kong courts could find government actions unconstitutional, and that civil rights should be interpreted generously.

Naturally, Hong Kong people were pleased and reassured.

Shortly after the decision was announced, the Chinese government began to criticize it -- first, through proxies in Hong Kong. Last weekend, Beijing officials told Hong Kong's justice secretary that the decision contradicted constitutional principles and "should be rectified."

Such comments from government officials might not be taken seriously in the United States, so strong is America's commitment to the rule of law. However, coming from Beijing, the criticism has raised fears that China is preparing to break its promise on Hong Kong's judicial independence.

Beijing's attack on the Hong Kong courts is not the only recent threat to our legal system's independence. A few months ago, Beijing decided to prosecute several Hong Kong crimes in mainland courts. This quite plainly violates both Hong Kong law and the guarantees Beijing made not to interfere in Hong Kong's judicial affairs. Hong Kong people are understandably worried that the mainland will go further in the future. They fear that other things people do here, like joining a political party or participating in a demonstration, might get them into trouble on the mainland.

Not so far-fetched, really, when you consider that since October, China has imprisoned several dozen brave activists who tried to form an independent political party on the mainland.

Also in recent weeks, there was a great furor when the top law enforcement official here revealed that she decided not to prosecute a newspaper publisher on fraud charges because "the failure of a well-established important media group at that time could have sent a very bad message to the international community." Of course, the message sent to the international community is the worst possible one: The rich and powerful will get a pass from law enforcement authorities.

There is a sense of crisis in Hong Kong. We fear Hong Kong's most precious attribute, the rule of law, may be slipping through our fingers.

It was not supposed to be this way. When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, the international community promised to be vigilant. Many countries, including the United States, specifically committed themselves to monitor our situation -- especially the rule of law -- and to speak up if it were threatened. Indeed, U.S. law requires the State Department to report annually whether Hong Kong is enjoying the freedoms China promised to respect. That report is due March 31.

With a heavy heart, I say that Hong Kong's freedoms hang in the balance. We in Hong Kong will stand up for our freedoms, but we need the support of the world to win.

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