The Asian Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1997

A Message From Hong Kong to Davos

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 silent.
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 freedom
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.

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