Greedy for China Market, West Betrays Hong Kong

By Cerami, Charles A. | Insight on the News, June 10, 1996 | Go to article overview

Greedy for China Market, West Betrays Hong Kong


Cerami, Charles A., Insight on the News


Beijing has broken every promise it made on Hong Kong's future. President Clinton, fearing exclusion from China's untapped market potential, looks the other way as China emasculates the democracy.

When Britain agreed in 1984 to give sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China on July 1, 1997, the deal was based upon Beijing's promises to let the region retain its civil and economic liberties.

Instead, Beijing has been systematically breaking almost every commitment it made at that time and, some fear, giving the world a clinic on how it plans to behave as a superpower. The parallel with its behavior toward the democratic Republic of China on Taiwan is unmistakable. Beyond that, expert observers fear it forebodes a China whose power and methods could become more fearsome than the former Soviet Union's once were. Yet China's enormous market potential tempts virtually every other nation to pant after the profits and pass over the premonitions.

"Beijing has broken one promise after another that it made to the British," says Martin C.M. Lee, president of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and head of the Democratic Party, which is the crown colony's largest. "Yet, it is clear that London will do nothing, not even protest in a meaningful way. It could at least go to the World Court with a powerful case and bring China's misdeeds to greater attention, but it will not. Why not? Because everyone is hypnotized by the many reminders that China's 1.25 billion people could become the world's greatest market. No one wants to risk being barred from that."

Lee recently was in Washington with leading associates of his party. He had few illusions about matching the clout of the colossus he had been standing up to for more than a decade, but he hoped, at least, to put the facts before President Clinton and Vice President Gore.

Is this any of our affair? What could the United States do? "Everything," Lee replies in the crisp style of the trial lawyer and notable speaker that he is. "In our day, only America can act in a way that makes others pay attention. Either America acts or nothing is done. And the U.S. does, indeed, have a lever to push: your own Public Law 102-383, the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992."

Shortly before leaving office, President Bush signed that into law, noting that China had promised the Hong Kong region would "continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy" and retain its current lifestyle and legal, social and economic systems until at least the year 2047 under a " `one country, two systems' policy." There was a long string of other pronouncements about democratization, human rights and elections, making it clear that the U.S. Congress and president intended to base American trade and political policies on the promises Beijing had made.

Beijing did not complain and did not tell us this was none of our affair. It clearly wanted the world to keep treating Hong Kong in the old way for as long as possible to retain the investments and profitability that helped to enrich China itself. So, by duping the world just as it duped England, it made the world -- and particularly the United States -- a party to the 1984 deal.

What exactly has Beijing done to overturn so many promises? Here is a partial list. Notice the way it has slithered away from the original promises to a revised set of what it calls "realities":

* China promised that Hong Kong's chief executive would be elected by the people of the region. Instead, it has let it be known that he or she will be chosen by a group of 400 people who will be appointed by Beijing.

* It promised that the legislature of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region would be constituted by elections. Now it is saying there will be an appointed legislature "for one year," so it is clear that if this sudden innovation can be introduced, further changes also can be brought in -- such as indefinite extension of the appointed legislators, depending on their behavior. …

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