LONDON — London. -- How will it end? The battle between Beijing and Hong Kong's governor, Chris Patten, has reached an impasse. After months of suffering Beijing's bombastic refusal to negotiate, Mr. Patten has proceeded on his own to publish a bill that will democratize Hong Kong's politics.
Might China respond by sending in the army to do a Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong, or even by quietly activating a fifth-columnist on the governor's staff to poison his soup?
The far out is always possible in politics, but the more likely scenario is for Beijing to apply pressure by more conventional means -- by impeding construction of Hong Kong's vital new airport, for example, or by threatening the city's water supply or refusing to cooperate with police work against the blooming gangster and gun-running business fed by the mainland's underworld.
In Washington, Tokyo, Paris and Bonn there's some quiet muttering about why did London get us into this potential mess? Much current thinking, typified by George Bush, believes that China is too big to trifle with, and since it has chosen to junk Marxist economics, the best long-term course is to help it realize its capitalist potential and play down points of difference, such as human rights.
This argument ignores the people of Hong Kong, who, despite all Chinese protestations, are as full of the hopes and expectations of political participation as the South Koreans and Thais. Moreover, it would send the likes of ex-Yugoslavia, Russia, Somalia and Burma the message that the West, in its heart, does not really believe that democracy is the single most important political virtue.
President Clinton's new foreign-policy team talks of being tough on China in trade talks in order to convince it that it can expect a renewal of the most-favored-nation trade status only if there are substantial human-rights improvements inside China. Yet, paradoxically, there's little thinking in Washington about supporting Chris Patten in Hong Kong -- a far more important front than the old battle ground of Tiananmen Square.
It's more important for two critical reasons. First, the struggle for China's soul will be won, not in Beijing, but on China's periphery, in the capitalist growth zone, in the southern province of Guangdong, neighbor of Hong Kong.
Second, not only has Hong Kong achieved immense economic advances in a relatively short time, it has succeeded with social policy too. It has absorbed destitute refugees from the mainland and reduced infant mortality levels to below U.S. levels.
It has a good distribution of income, and it has ended China's old practices of infanticide and child labor. And it has got on top of corruption (though not without an almighty struggle inside the higher ranks of the police force).
This is the capitalism that the West must want to stand for, not the corroding, out-of-control, money-comes-first, ethics of Guangdong which is undermining many of the valuable social achievements made in the days of Communist rule. (The infant-mortality rate, the single most important indicator of a society's general well being, has started to climb again after years of decline.) The untrammeled rush to growth may lead to high rates of imports of Mercedeses and Jaguars, but it doesn't lead to a solid middle class or union-inspired ethos that will fight for democracy.
For its own safety and stability China needs the Trojan Horse of a democratic Hong Kong to be wheeled right into the heartland of South China's economic take-off.
The West's leaders should use every chance to educate the Chinese leadership that its self-interest lies not in blocking Mr. Patten's political reforms.
China needs Hong Kong to provide entrepreneurial nourishment South China. But it also needs Hong Kong's socially responsible example to discipline the no-holds-barred capitalism of South China. And democracy has a better record of guaranteeing that than any other system.
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.