Be firm with China on Hong Kong

March 04, 1997|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- It is perhaps fortunate that Deng Xiaoping died when he did, just four and a half months before the Union Jack is run down in Hong Kong. Britain and China appeared to be on an unavoidable collision course.

If Beijing holds ultimate power in Hong Kong after July 1, London, through its audacious governor, Chris Patten, has held the trump of the electorate's will. He has over the last five years engineered Hong Kong's entry into the democratic community -- earning, among other epithets, Beijing's obloquy as ''a serpent, a whore and a sinner for all millennia.''

Hong Kong's citizens filled the streets for days after the Tiananmen Square massacre. They are likely to resist any move to take away their own new-found liberties after July 1. Martin Lee and his United Democrats, the largest party in the reformed legislature, are not going to kowtow to Beijing. Neither will Chris Patten; he will no longer be governor, but the airwaves will be his.

London and Washington do not want a showdown that could thwart the bridge-building diplomacy of the last two years. But public opinion will impose its constraints. Should the truncheons start to flay and the bullets to fly against dissenting legislators, students and the like, public opinion in many parts of the world will not watch quietly on television.

Only the business community in the democracies buys Henry Kissinger's argument that China should be left alone, because over time its economic development will produce a more benign environment for human rights. That happens only if there is a built-in dialectic between government pragmatists and would-be democrats. That didn't exist in Hitler's Germany and it hasn't existed in China since Tiananmen Square.

Play roughly

Before Deng died it seemed entirely plausible in Hong Kong that China would play as roughly as necessary. He was unyielding in his later years on the political dominance of the Communist Party -- even if it meant sacrificing Hong Kong's role as the economic power house of southern China. Only as the great investment flood faltered and the Hong Kong elite fled to refuges in Canada, Australia and the U.S. would the regime have started to count the cost and make some compromises.

With Deng dead the Chinese leadership already begins to look different. Perhaps Mr. Patten anticipated as much. Hong Kong's last governor is a wily, risk-taking, politician, rather than, as his predecessors were, a tradition-bound civil servant. Mr. Patten has run Hong Kong policy almost single-handed, often against Foreign Office advice in London and over the protests of those predecessors.

He has had little help or support from Bill Clinton, and less from European capitals. But his vision of the era of flexibility that might follow Deng (now shared increasingly by the U.S. State Department's top China policy-maker, Winston Lord), together with his Roman Catholic antipathy to communism and sensitivity to human rights, drove him forward.

In the next four months there will be much jostling for power in Beijing. Conservatives will resist any attempt to liberalize either at home or abroad. But the dominant trend in Beijing policy is toward economic and political pragmatism. The pragmatists will protect the Hong Kong goose and its golden eggs. They will be bolstered as July 1 approaches and it becomes clear that -- something many Chinese never quite believed -- the British really are going to hand over Hong Kong, and with its treasure undepleted.

The pragmatists also hold the Taiwan card. A Taiwan reunited with China is a prize even greater than Hong Kong. Taiwan, too, is more democratic than Hong Kong. If there is to be unity it must keep Taiwanese democracy intact. Thus the pragmatists must accept that democracy will be practiced in some Chinese provinces. (Interestingly, and too often under-reported, democracy is now being introduced in many rural areas in China itself.)

Washington's role will be crucial. Any faltering will be turned to advantage by Beijing's conservatives. Firmness may preserve Hong Kong's elected legislative council and bill of rights.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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