The Age, December 3, 1996

Hong Kong Sailing Into China's Storm

By Martin C.M. Lee

China's plan to install an appointed legislature in Hong Kong later this month will hinder the transition and have devastating effects on business in the region, writes Martin Lee.
This month, Hong Kong citizens and the world will have their first glimpse of the bleak future for democracy, freedom and the rule of law in Hong Kong.
Despite Beijing's solemn promises over the past decade to allow Hong Kong people to keep their freedoms and elect their leaders after the transfer of sovereignty next July, on 21 December China's leaders will foist on Hong Kong's 6.5 million people an appointed legislature, which will shake the foundation of Asia's most successful city and bury any chance of a successful transition in the tiny but irreplaceable society at the heart of the Pacific Rim.
Hong Kong already has a legislature: it was elected in September 1995 by the largest number of voters ever. Facing down threats from China, Hong Kong people overwhelmingly elected pro-democracy candidates who would fight to keep Hong Kong the free society it is today.
But rather than respecting Hong Kong's clear aspirations for democracy, China has pledged to reverse Hong Kong's decision and appoint its own legislature to carry out Beijing's commands. This will cause both a constitutional crisis and a crisis of confidence in Hong Kong's already shaky future. It will also certainly mean the end of the rule of law as we know it, for no judge can protect an individual's freedoms if the law takes them away.
When the Sino-British Joint Declaration agreeing to the handover to China was signed in 1984, Hong Kong people were happy because it promised that we would continue to enjoy our freedoms -- economic, political and civil. The basis for Hong Kong to return to China was "one country, two systems" -- meaning that China would not interfere with Hong Kong's system and way of life. Britain and China promised that "Hong Kong people would rule Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy" and have a domestically elected legislature to protect rights.
But instead of the promised high degree of autonomy, China now wants a high degree of control. Instead of an elected legislature, Beijing will sack Hong Kong's elected representatives and China's appointed legislature will roll back our Bill of Rights and pass repressive laws on "subversion" to silence the press, the public and their democratically elected representatives.
And yet in Australia, I have frequently heard the argument that Hong Kong will continue to be successful and free even without elected institutions and the rule of law. Indeed, many people wish to believe that because they do business in China they will continue to do business in China and Hong Kong. This is short-sighted and wrong.
Hong Kong is Asia's freest society. Thousands of Australian and other international businesses establish their regional operations in Hong Kong because it is the only city in Asia that reliably combines the rule of law, press freedom and a level playing field. Even companies investing in China have their base in Hong Kong because of our rule of law and dependable economic information.
If China is allowed to shut down our legislature, with it will go the only means of preserving the very things that make Hong Kong the success story it is today. And investing in China -- including Hong Kong -- will be much riskier because commercial decisions will have to be made without the free flow of economic information Hong Kong now provides.
Although Hong Kong did not have genuine elections until 1991, we none the less had all of the benefits of democracy: protection for rights, contracts and freedoms guaranteed by the elected British Parliament 8000 miles away. Certainly no one believes that China's rubber stamp National People's Congress can guarantee rights and freedoms in Hong Kong after the transfer of sovereignty when it does not protect the human rights of people in China today.
Yes, China would like to keep Hong Kong prosperous -- to keep the Hong Kong "goose" laying golden eggs. But all indications are that Beijing has no understanding of the fragile nature of the combined freedoms that underpin our economic success. And unfortunately, no one is prepared to tell them.
Australia and the world community should want China to become more like Hong Kong -- instead of the alternative of Hong Kong becoming not unlike any other city in China, with corruption and without the rule of law or a free flow of information.
China's leaders must be convinced to permit Hong Kong's free system to continue. If not, the damage will be irreversible and devastating to the entire region, for which Hong Kong is a beacon and an example. Perhaps the biggest loser of all will be China, which will no longer have the model of Hong Kong to learn from, as it tries to rejoin the world community and participate in the new global economy.
If China is allowed to switch off the lights in Hong Kong, darkness will fall not only on Hong Kong and China, but across the entire Asia-Pacific region. This need not happen. We in Hong Kong are committed to staying and fighting to keep Hong Kong free. It is my hope that Australians and the Australian Government will recognise that it is in their interest to do so as well.

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