Standing up for Hong Kong

July 02, 2004

FOR DECADES, the line on Hong Kong was that it was merely an economic city, not a political one. If there was truth to that under the firm hand of British colonialism, it is no longer so under the blunt rule of China's nominal communists. These days, Hong Kong is forging a broader identity of its own - with a vital political struggle that deserves more overt U.S. support.

A year ago, on the sixth anniversary of China's takeover, a half-million Hong Kong residents donned black to march in its streets in an impressive show of their democratic aspirations aimed at Beijing. Yesterday, on the seventh anniversary, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers again turned out in defiance - a calm but determined sea of white shirts this time.

In between the two marches, Chinese ham-handedness has seemed to work overtime to fan the dynamic port's longing for more democracy.

This spring, Beijing unilaterally quashed anticipation that it would allow the special Chinese region, under its constitution, to directly elect its political leaders as early as 2007 and added that future leaders must meet certain patriotic criteria.

Some elected legislators who have challenged China have had feces smeared on their office doors and received phone threats; on the wall outside the office of one legislator and veteran activist, someone scrawled "Traitors must die." Three radio DJs, who have prominently questioned Beijing on the air, have called it quits after threats to their families.

Seven years ago, many analysts held the theory that China would handle Hong Kong deftly, with an eye for showcasing the device of "one country, two systems" to the world's only full-fledged Chinese democracy, Taiwan, also claimed as the mainland's. Short of talk of independence, Hong Kong now seems to be learning more from Taiwan than the other way around. In any case, the message about China's intentions for Taiwan - and the world - is clear and highly cautionary.

As with Taiwan's conflicts with Beijing, the Bush administration has offered some moderate statements of support for Hong Kong's political yearnings, all carefully couched so as not to offend China's prickly sense of sovereignty or gum up the larger complexities of U.S.-China relations. Such temperance doesn't do sufficient justice to the cause of Hong Kong democracy.

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