Clinton's Early Showdown with China

JONATHAN POWER

December 28, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- In 1982, during a visit to Beijing, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told the Chinese bluntly: ''We stick by our treaties.''

In other words, while China had the right to reclaim Hong Kong's New Territories in 1997 (geographically part of the mainland and leased by Britain in 1898 for 99 years), it had no claim on Kowloon or Hong Kong Island, the pulse and the heart of the territory of Hong Kong.

Uncharacteristically, Mrs. Thatcher's nerve failed her and, confronted by her pro-Chinese Foreign Office mandarins, she capitulated not long after.

She agreed to a total handover to China by 1997 with a Legislative Council that would be only one-third directly elected.

There was some rough justice in this, since the original treaties had been wrested from the Chinese by force in the first place.

But, by the light of the age we live in, it was an unforgiveable historical misjudgment to compound the original theft with a betrayal of the people for whom Britain had assumed responsibility for the best part of four generations.

The new Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, is now trying to put right this betrayal with his recently-announced program of fast democratization.

Mrs. Thatcher on first instinct -- primeval possessiveness -- the same that sent her to grab the Falklands back from Argentina -- was prepared to tell Beijing to go jump in the sea.

Then, having done a volte-face, she had no other instincts to fall back on. The practice of democracy was never her strong suit at home, and abroad it was even less so.

What she failed to see was, one, that she was living in a time when democracy was going through its single greatest historical surge and, two, that the Victorian adventurers had handed her down a card, the legal right to hang on to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, she could have played for a good cause.

Of course, her mandarin advisers were telling her that the Hong Kong people were merely interested in making money and that it was only a handful of pointy-headed intellectuals who were stirring the democracy waters.

Indeed, at that time, opinion polls in Hong Kong seemed to

confirm political indifference.

Britain had never accepted such a specious argument in its decolonization program before. Moreover, the lesson of the polls over time is that the Hong Kong people have, all too evidently, arrived at that state of evolution that comes to every country that makes material progress: Its increasingly educated people start to demand a political say.

A poll published by the South China Morning Post Tuesday finds, despite all the dire saber rattling from Beijing, that nearly twice as many people would vote (if they could) for Mr. Patten's democracy plan as would oppose it.

The next three months, leading up to the vote of the Legislative Council on the democracy proposals, are critical.

America's role will probably decide the issue.

If Hong Kong's legislative and business opinion is convinced that China, unchallenged by America, will follow through on its bombast and cut off the water supply or even send in the Army, then Mr. Patten will find himself isolated and forced to sue for terms.

Already there are signs in the serious British press, not least the respected Economist, of the white flag being run up.

On the other hand, if President-elect Bill Clinton decides to throw his influence behind the once-in-a-millennium opportunity to sow great seed of democracy in the fertile fields of what soon will be an important part of China, then the likelihood is that the old men of Beijing will have little choice but to accept it.

There is a commonly held view that Beijing never submits to foreign pressure. This is manifestly overstated, if not absurd.

The shunning of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre clearly influenced it to ease up at least on the degree of punishment meted out to the dissidents it had rounded up.

Its desire to get back in Washington's good books and head off the pressures mounting in Congress to cut off its Most Favored Nation trade status also affected its votes in the U.N. Security Council on the Iraq question.

President Bush's recent decision to sell Taiwan modern jet fighters, which contradicted an earlier American pledge, appears have been swallowed, if not yet digested.

In any duel, Mr. Clinton's America has the sharper thrust. For paramount influence-maker Deng Xiaoping, the transition to a capitalist success story is everything.

If, simultaneously, he lost the open American door (at present China is running a $20 billion annual trade surplus with America) together with the undermining of world-wide confidence in the Hong Kong economy, on which the South China economy depends, he would have shot away both his wings so badly that the Chinese capitalist take-off would lose all momentum.

Mr. Deng knows his time on earth is running out. Neither he nor his colleagues on the Long March are likely to be around on midnight, June 30, 1997, when the Union Jack comes down.

He knows he cannot afford a misstep when there will be no opportunity in his lifetime to try again.

This time ''the correlation of forces,'' to use that old Marxist gobbledygook, is in favor of democracy.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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