Fearful China fails to heed Hong Kong's example

October 04, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- While the United States is promoting democracy as the best global political model, China is holding up a competitive theory to the world. A September trip to Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Hong Kong gave me a chance to examine the Chinese model.

Here is its essence: If you develop a state-directed version of capitalism and keep the economy booming, the population won't care about democratic freedoms. People will choose stability and growth over messy democracy that could lead to chaos.

The China model is attractive to other authoritarians, such as Russia's Vladimir V. Putin. Yet for China, the model is seriously flawed, especially if it continues to be rigidly embraced by Beijing.

That excess rigidity is on clear display in Hong Kong, whose beauty and energy were not dimmed by its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

But the former British colony brought something special to China that is being squandered by Beijing: extensive experience with rule of law and democratic norms. "We had the fruits of democracy without the tree," an elected government, said Martin Lee, one of Hong Kong's leading democracy campaigners and a member of its legislative council.

Beijing could have viewed Hong Kong's long experience with rule of law as a model for the mainland.

The Chinese government might be correct that most people on the mainland are more concerned about getting rich than getting the vote. But rising tensions provoked by swift economic change can't be contained unless the growing complaints of the Chinese public are addressed. That will require more popular participation in the system, and will definitely require development of the rule of law.

Hong Kong officials could have mentored Chinese counterparts on how to gradually introduce democratic and legal systems. Hong Kong businessmen are already advising mainland entrepreneurs on international business tactics.

Instead, Beijing has moved to slap Hong Kong's democrats down. Hong Kong's Basic Law provides for "one country, two systems," allowing it more freedoms than the rest of China. This autonomous region was supposed to move slowly toward full popular election of its chief executive in 2007 and of the legislature possibly in 2008 (half the legislature is now popularly elected). Beijing was guaranteed a veto over any political changes.

In April, Beijing unilaterally reinterpreted the Basic Law to decree that only it could initiate political change in Hong Kong. It ruled out full, direct elections by 2007 and 2008 and set no date for permitting full suffrage.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, essentially hand-picked by Beijing, says stability and prosperity are more important than democracy to Hong Kong residents. More to the point, he says, "We cannot import a system which is unpleasant to Beijing."

Why is the Beijing government so panicky about democracy in Hong Kong?

"They are afraid," says Mr. Lee. "Control is in their blood."

What does Beijing fear?

"They don't want to see democracy spread in the rest of China," he says. Beijing has watched a pro-independence president gain re-election in nearby Taiwan, the island democracy over which China claims sovereignty.

Mr. Lee says Beijing leaders are mistaken: "There is nobody in Hong Kong who thinks of independence." He says Beijing "can perfectly control the Chinese people who live in large cities and are working to get rich. They won't demand full democracy for the foreseeable future."

Last week, Beijing invited Hong Kong's legislative council to tour the southeastern province of Guangdong - the first time pro-democracy lawmakers have been allowed into China in a decade. But Communist officials refused to talk about the political issues on democrats' minds. Still too scary. "They won't trust the Hong Kong leaders," Mr. Lee says.

Too true. But the China model needs the advice of the Hong Kong democrats to maintain progress on the mainland. If Chinese leaders waste that expertise, they might face big trouble down the road.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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