Hong Kong Needs U.S. Support

COMMENTARY International Economies

Hong Kong Needs U.S. Support

Sep 9th, 2004 3 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow in China Policy

Harvey served as the Distinguished Fellow in China Policy.

Will democracy survive in Hong Kong?

We'll know better after Sept. 12, when Hong Kong voters will elect the 30 members of the Legislative Council who run in geographic districts. Another 30 will be chosen by "functional constituencies" -- businessmen, lawyers, accountants, etc. The functional constituency approach (first developed by Benito Mussolini in 1923) ensures the election of a conservative core group, one easier for mainland China (PRC) to control.

That's an improvement over the last election when the voters choose only 24 of 60, but it's far from what Hong Kong citizens want. Back on July 1, a swelteringly hot day, more than half a million of them -- a quarter of the city's adults -- took to the streets, demanding more democracy.

But Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, says that won't happen any time soon. In this, Tung echoes his masters in Beijing, who fear that truly democratic elections in Hong Kong will raise embarrassing questions in mainland China about the rule of the unelected Chinese Communist Party.

Hong Kong's status is defined in the Sino-British Declaration of 1984 and the "Basic Law" promulgated by China in 1990. The first announced Hong Kong would be joined to China on July 1, 1997. The second was to serve as Hong Kong's constitution. Of course, Hong Kong citizens played no part in negotiating the Sino-British Declaration, and the Basic Law was never submitted for their approval. Still, their social and economic systems, along with their basic rights and privileges in all spheres except foreign policy and defense, were guaranteed to them for 50 years. Chinese law wouldn't be applied in Hong Kong, and the Basic Law stated its "ultimate aim" was for the chief executive and all members of the Legislative Council to be chosen by universal suffrage.

The Basic Law says that these changes can come any time after 2007. The marchers wanted to make sure they would. But last April, China said this wouldn't happen. Perhaps in 2030, say mainland Chinese commentators. And although Chief Executive Tung had promised public consultations this year on universal suffrage, he now says since Beijing has made up its mind there is no longer any point to having them.

China has worked hard since July to prevent pro-democracy candidates from doing well on Sept. 12. Character smears are rife, with some of the more prominent members up for re-election accused of "misuse of public funds." One democratic campaigner was arrested on the mainland for "consorting with a prostitute" -- one of the few times such an arrest has ever been made, and one generally regarded as a setup. Meanwhile pro-PRC parties talk about the need for "harmonious relations" with Beijing.

Despite hands-off pledges and the much ballyhooed "one country, two systems" formula, PRC interference in Hong Kong has grown ever more persistent year by year since 1997. When Tung Chee-hwa called off the consultations on universal suffrage, Beijing's official New China News Agency made clear his chain had been yanked: He was authorized to "finalize relevant work arrangements" in Hong Kong only after "consultations with the relevant departments of the Central Government." Then in April, China's National People's Congress announced that it, and only it, would decide if and when Hong Kong citizens would be allowed to elect their government.

Beijing insists that U.S. officials have no business speaking up on Hong Kong's behalf. But we have substantial interests in what is the world's 10th largest trading entity and 10th largest banking center. Hong Kong is also the 14th largest consumer of American exports. Besides, about 50,000 U.S. citizens (including dual nationals) live in Hong Kong, where there are more than 1,000 American firms. Direct U.S. investment tops $30 billion.

In 1992, Congress passed the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act. It conferred trade, immigration and many other benefits on Hong Kong as an entity distinct from China for purposes of American domestic law. U.S. naval ships often call there. Though occasionally contravened by Beijing, Hong Kong maintains an autonomous and transparent export control regime designed to keep sensitive military technology and equipment out of Chinese hands.

Certainly the U.S. should speak out in support of democratic development in Hong Kong, undeterred by Chinese grumbling about "interference in internal affairs." Hong Kong, whose present status is the result of international agreements registered with the United Nations, cannot be considered simply a Chinese internal affair. America should no more hesitate to point out Chinese violations of obligations toward Hong Kong than to point out Chinese violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms at home.

This may mean forceful statements by the American Consulate General in Hong Kong and at international venues, including U.N. bodies. Nor should we hesitate to raise the subject in Beijing itself. Congressional resolutions are an obvious consequence of the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, and should be encouraged.

It's high time we shined a spotlight on China's broken pledges -- whether Beijing likes it or not.

Harvey Feldman is a retired U.S. ambassador who was one of the drafters of the Taiwan Relations Act. He is now senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Asia Studies Center.

Distributed on the UPI wire.