A Message From Hong Kong
By Martin C.M. Lee
- Hundreds of the world's economic and political leaders are gathering
for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to congratulate each
other on the triumph of free market economics, the rule of law and the
free flow of information. They are entitled to do so: At the end of the
20th century more countries are free than ever before and the world is
moving steadily in the direction of democracy and freedom.
- But the prosperous and free society of Hong Kong is going in the opposite
direction. And even as world leaders meet in the Alps, top Chinese leaders
meet behind closed doors in Beijing to plot the rollback of Hong Kong's
Bill of Rights and passage of repressive laws. The removal of civil rights
protections -- put in place in the territory after the Tiananmen Square
crackdown -- is only the latest in a series of methodical steps by Beijing
to ensure complete control when the United Kingdom hands over the territory
to China this summer.
- Why should all of this matter to economic and political leaders in
Davos? Because how China handles -- or mishandles -- Hong Kong is the single
most important test for China's future role in the global community. And
yet many of the world's democracies who should want to see Hong Kong remain
free now refuse to condemn -- or even comment on -- Beijing's unambiguous
plans to destroy the colony's democratic institutions, rule of law and
basic freedoms. World leaders may fear that stating the obvious to China
will jeopardize their trade interests. They fail to realize, however, that
by remaining silent they not only give China an implicit green light to
endanger Hong Kong's freedom, but also place at greater risk the very trade
interests and international agreements they are attempting to protect.
If the liberties that are the foundation of Hong Kong's success are ripped
up, then everyone loses.
- In the 1984 Joint Declaration, whereby Great Britain agreed to hand
over the territory to China at midnight on June 30, 1997, Chinese leaders
specifically guaranteed that under the "one country, two systems"
policy, Hong Kong would have a "legislature constituted by elections"
and that our legal system and all existing rights and freedoms would continue.
In 1984, the world applauded as the Joint Declaration was announced. Now
that the U.N.-registered treaty is in tatters, the world is conspicuously
- There can no longer be any pretense, as Beijing has claimed, that China
is acting in Hong Kong's best interests. The clearest sign that China was
to begin an assault on the colony's freedoms came this past December. It
was then that China appointed Hong Kong's future leader, a businessman,
C.H. Tung, who now defends Beijing's efforts to eradicate rights protections.
Later that same month, Beijing set up an appointed so-called "provisional"
legislature in Shenzhen, China, that contains many members rejected by
Hong Kong people at the real elections to our Legislative Council in September
1995. That election saw a victory for pro-democracy legislators, who were
elected for a full four-year term. According to Chinese leaders in January,
Beijing's sham legislature is to "legislate" for Hong Kong and
will take over once Hong Kong's real legislators are turned out on July
1. This body will be the main vehicle for Chinaís repressive plans
for Hong Kong, and will soon pass laws to restrict press freedom and political
- But even though China is reneging on promises it set down in an international
treaty, the world's economic and political leaders -- with the notable
exceptions of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament -- have
not dared say anything. Few realize that more is at stake than which legislature
rules the colony. In fact, the failure to mention Beijing's transgressions
in Hong Kong will ultimately do the greatest harm to the world economic
communityís long-term interests in China, not to mention Hong Kong.
- Let me explain. Hong Kong's 6.5 million citizens -- nearly the population
of Switzerland -- have distinguished themselves by producing the worldís
most free economy (according to the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation
and the Wall Street Journal's "Index of Economic Freedom") for
several years running. Our business climate is so successful precisely
because it is supported by the rule of law, press freedom and an accountable
and uncorrupted government. Chinese leaders clearly believe -- because
they are not being told otherwise -- that they can radically restrict rights
and freedoms in Hong Kong and not affect Hong Kong's successful economy
or their own.
- But without a free and autonomous Hong Kong, investing in China itself
will be a much riskier proposition. Many European and international companies
base their China operations in Hong Kong because of our level playing field,
rule of law and press freedom. Even businesses investing in China alone
depend on Hong Kong's free and unrestricted flow of economic information,
which is not available in China. Beijing releases the "good news,"
but the most important economic information -- the "bad news"
-- comes only from Hong Kong.
- So it would make sense if the world's economic leaders defended Hong
Kong's freedoms -- if not as a matter of principle then as a matter of
self-interest. But none have taken a stand and their silence seems to endorse
Beijing's view that freedom can be broken into bits, accepting only economic
liberty and repressing the political rights that underpin it. But freedom
of movement, of assembly , of speech, for example, are both economic and
political liberties. Limiting any of these will constrict both individuals
and bottom lines.
- Economic and political leaders should realize that there is no reason
why standing up for Hong Kong should affect China trade. In Hong Kong,
we are not asking for independence, but only for the freedoms and institutions
China has already promised. And if Beijing is allowed to break an international
treaty with Britain with impunity today, then leaders of China will be
further encouraged to break treaties with other nations tomorrow. Ultimately,
the issue comes down to a question of leadership. If those meeting in Davos,
or the heads of state in Washington, D.C., Bonn, Paris and elsewhere do
not work together, China will continue to divide and conquer. No single
business or political leader will speak up for fear of being singled out
and excluded from China's market.
- It must be acknowledged that pursuing more trade in China and defending
Hong Kong's freedoms are not mutually exclusive -- but complementary. I
am visiting nine cities in Europe with this message. And if French, German
and other European business executives really have their own interests
at heart they must ask their presidents, prime ministers and chancellors
to insist that China keeps its promises and maintain a free Hong Kong.