BY ITS LIGHTS, China is keeping its 1984 pledge to Britain to maintain Hong Kong's political and economic institutions for 50 years after absorbing it next July 1. It has just named a thoroughly docile, un-elected bunch of Hong Kong vested interests to serve on a legislative council. That's what Britain was doing in 1984, long before its last governor, Chris Patten, attempted to introduce democracy in 1995.
The Democratic Party, first in the 1995 elections, is shut out of the new hand-picked chamber. Mr. Patten has objected, and his complaints are appealing. But China may plausibly argue that Mr. Patten violated the 1984 agreement, rewriting the rules at the end of the game.
It is sadly true that China, paranoid about dissent, is chilling Hong Kong's atmosphere of free speech. The regime of ancients in Beijing favors capitalism under a Communist monopoly of political power. The Communist Party, banned until now in Hong Kong, will soon be its sole party. China does not want Hong Kong to become a sanctuary for Chinese dissent.
Beijing's commitment to extend capitalism is not in doubt. China is rebuilding Shanghai as a free-wheeling commercial window on the West. Singapore, an independent country of British colonial heritage and Chinese ethnicity, combines free-wheeling capitalism with a sterile political monopoly not unlike communism.
Some businesses and many Hong Kong citizens will leave before it becomes China. Most foreign capital will stay or grow, happy to have a foot in the door of the huge Chinese market. But Hong Kong's great spirit will wither.
That bodes ill for China's attempts to assuage Taiwan's fears. Like Hong Kong, Taiwan once combined capitalist economic freedom with a Leninist-like monopoly on power. Then it changed. Democracy on Taiwan today is among the most credible in East Asia.
As they watch what's happening in Hong Kong, most people on Taiwan don't want any part of it. China must do a lot better by Hong Kong if it hopes to lure the people of Taiwan into China by consent.
Pub Date: 1/13/97