China lays down the law to Hong Kong Fear of freedom: Proposed rules restrict politics, press and speaking out.

April 13, 1997

IT WILL BE ILLEGAL in Hong Kong after July 1 to advocate independence for Hong Kong, Taiwan or Tibet. The police will have authority to ban demonstrations on grounds of national security and none may be held without "notice of non-objection." The legislature will be appointed. The chief executive has already been appointed. Political donations from abroad will be forbidden. The present office-holders will lose their positions.

Tung Chee-hwa, the shipping magnate that Chinese officials appointed as chief executive for Hong Kong when it reverts to Chinese sovereignty, proposed these rules. He invites public discussion, which is going forward vociferously, and may amend the rules. Britain's outgoing colonial governor, Chris Patten, attacked them, saying, "People produce exactly the political problems that they want to avoid when they try to slap down on people's freedoms in the name of greater stability."

While China's intent is to preserve economic vigor while silencing dissent and imposing Confucian order, enterprises including information, journalism and entertainment that flourish on the island must be concerned. For the people of Hong Kong, takeover looms as simultaneously depressing and exciting.

China and Britain agreed in 1984 that China would acquire Hong Kong in 1997, guaranteeing it 50 years of its own political and economic system. Since then, China's own economic system changed, making the island less important, while Hong Kong's political system -- which had been patronizing colonialism -- has been transformed. It is no longer what China promised then to preserve.

Two events spurred democracy. One was China's 1989 suppression of demonstrations in Beijing. Hong Kong watched in horror and outrage, and many of its citizens helped the democracy demonstrators. Lively political discourse began and has not ended. The second was British Prime Minister John Major's appointment of a political rival, Mr. Patten, to govern the colony's final British years. Instead of relaxing in pomp and prestige, the populist Mr. Patten provoked democratic activism.

Beijing rules will complicate U.S. relations with China even further. There will be more human rights violations to protest. What the proposed rules show is that the people of Hong Kong are right to fear the government of China, which in turn is terrified of them.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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