The Times, October 9 1998

The Times

Blair must not kowtow to Beijing

By Martin C.M. Lee

After a three-day visit to Beijing, Tony Blair will visit Hong Kong today for the first time since the end of British rule. He has cast the visit as an opportunity to move beyond the bitter confrontations of the handover and into a "new era in Sino-British relations". Considering that the major sources of friction over Hong Kong have been democracy and the rule of law, Mr Blair's remarks risk sending a damaging signal.

At a time of growing economic difficulties, China's future, and the sustained improvement in its relations with Britain, depend on no less than systemic political reform, including the acceleration of democratic development in Hong Kong.

During the years leading up to the handover, it was hotly debated whether China would change Hong Kong or, as most people hoped, Hong Kong would change China. Unfortunately the initial signs are not promising. Since the handover, legal immunity has been extended to mainland Chinese government organisations such as the New China News Agency, and "national security" has become a ground for banning demonstrations or denying registration to organisations. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has experienced a decline in transparency of government, especially in the office of the Beijing appointed Chief Executive.

The Government's recent market intervention has raised concerns about the executive branch's decision-making process and its accountability. The market intervention also cast an ugly shadow across Hong Kong when civil servants and a non-democratically elected members of the Legislative Council used xenophobic language to lambast speculators accused of manipulating Hong Kong's currency.

In short, Hong Kong's political culture is changing. This is disappointing but should not come as a complete surprise. British rule, although not democratic, nevertheless endowed Hong Kong with principles and institutions associated with a democratic political system, including a tradition of open government, the rule of law, an independent anti-corruption agency and a professional Civil Service. Consequently, Hong Kong has always ranked high in international ratings of transparency and economic freedom, not to mention creditworthiness.

Now the political imperatives have changed. While Hong Kong may retain a great many of its laws, judges and civil servants, there is one major and potentially decisive change: we are now linked to a communist dictatorship rather than to a democracy.

Nevertheless, democracy has gained a foothold in Hong Kong. In last May's elections, voters braved torrential rain to vote in record numbers. Democratic candidates won two thirds of the popular vote but, according to Beijing's rigged election rules, we were allowed to take just one third of the seats. Since then we have continued to press for an elected Chief Executive answerable to a fully elected legislature. We have not been successful. In addition to being denied the control of the legislature that our popular support would dictate, we are straitjacketed by the Beijing-drafted Basic Law. This prohibits us from introducing any legislative initiative dealing with government policy, structure or expenditure, and reserves the power of interpretation and amendment to the National People's Congress in Beijing.

The people of Hong Kong desire democracy and are willing to fight for it. They have a lot of company throughout Asia, where, ironically, the economic crisis has given a big boost to political reform. Almost overnight, the conventional wisdom that economic progress can be made without democratic institutions collapsed along with the Asian economic miracle. Yet even those countries, such as South Korea and Thailand, which accept the need for political reform find it difficult to change the habits of a generation or more. How much more difficult it will be for China, which has yet to agree on the need for political reform and continues to defend the crushing of the 1989 democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

China's response to future economic difficulties, and potential political ones, remains an open question. If the past is any guide, there is cause for great concern. The history of China's communist rule is punctuated by extreme ideological shifts and repression by leaders trying to maintain absolute control in the face of political or economic turmoil largely of their own making.

When China's leaders feel secure, they grant freedoms. But liberalisation is always subject to sudden constrictions. Over the past months, even as Mr Blair arrived, Beijing has continued to arrest democracy activists. China faces potentially destabilising unemployment, bankruptcies of state enterprises and growing numbers of non-performing bank loans. Beijing must now decide how to respond to future crises.

For a start, China would do well to accelerate the pace of democracy in Hong Kong. Over the first year of Chinese rule, Hong Kong has shown Beijing that it is not a base for subversion. Its democrats continue to fight within the confines of an anti-democratic system, observing the rule of law. The first year has also provided a glimpse of Hong Kong without transparency, accountability and the influence of a democracy.

China will not make progress at Hong Kong's expense. At a time of growing consensus in favour of political reform around the world, Britain would be making a great mistake if it were to minimise Hong Kong's importance to the future of the mainland. Britain's desire for a better relationship with China, no less than its legal and moral obligations to its former colony, require continued, explicit and unapologetic support for democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Hong Kong.

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