China's law

April 29, 2004

SEVEN YEARS ago, when Britain ended its 150 years of colonial reign over Hong Kong by ceding the South China economic dynamo to Chinese rule, Beijing promised a continuation of the territory's laissez-faire capitalism, civil liberties and way of life for 50 years. It vowed not to impose socialism. But China did not promise Hong Kong full-fledged democracy or complete self-rule, and this week it sharply reminded the world of that -- and of the ultimate meaning of law in China.

The Basic Law, the Hong Kong quasi-constitution framed by Sino-British negotiators in advance of the city's 1997 handover, only held out the possibility of direct popular election of its chief executive and of its legislature and other political reforms sometime after 2007 -- as an ultimate aim. At the time, if such deliberately vague promises reasonably provoked a lot of skepticism, they also were tinged with some hope. After all, the British hadn't much bothered with democratic reforms in Hong Kong until just a few years before the handover.

Under Chinese rule, there has been an increase in the number of directly elected Hong Kong legislators. But if the majority of the city of 6.8 million residents still desires universal suffrage -- as polls indeed show -- lingering hopes were quashed Monday when China's legislature ruled Hong Kong had reached the limit of its movement toward democracy for the foreseeable future. It was hardly a surprise, because Beijing similarly announced just three weeks ago that it would have the first and last legal say on any political reforms in Hong Kong.

Look for sizable protests in Hong Kong's streets this June 4 (the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests) and July 1 (the seventh anniversary of China's takeover). Disappointingly, the initial U.S. outcry was not so strong, providing more evidence of the free pass given China by U.S. reliance on China's help in defusing the North Korean nuclear threat. Hence Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing simply snapped back: "Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong."

Translation: Beijing is Hong Kong's boss, Chinese law is on its side, and it will interpret laws for its political ends, irrespective of the city's or, particularly, foreign interests. The political calculation, of course, is that authoritarianism will be tolerated in Hong Kong as it is on the Chinese mainland in the name of economic well-being -- a calculation defied by the raucous democracies that have developed in formerly authoritarian, now well-off Taiwan and South Korea.

But in rapidly developing China -- where growing economic freedom and various experiments in grass-roots democracy inevitably trigger some hope -- the ultimate and unfortunate meaning of law still remains distinct from political freedom.

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