Beijing Reads Democracy in Hong Kong the (Pat)Riot Act

February 19, 2004
The Heritage Foundation

  Published on February 19, 2004

by John Tkacik, Jr. WEBMEMO #429

In a statement released by the Chinese government last week, Beijing branded "unpatriotic" attempts by Hong Kong's public to move toward direct election of its Chief Executive and Legislative Council. Hong Kong needs to be ruled by "patriots," says Beijing. To declare that the people of Hong Kong are unqualified to decide who is patriotic enough to participate in the governance of the Chinese "Special Administrative Region" is an insult. If the "global expansion of democracy" is really a pillar of American foreign policy, then both the Bush Administration and the Congress need to pay more attention to what's going on in Hong Kong.

Beijing's comments followed a late-January trip by Donald Tsang, Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), to Beijing to discuss possible democratic reforms, such as would be consistent with Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the "Basic Law." The first reform would be to allow direct election of the Chief Executive, currently selected by an 800-man committee. Basic Law states that its "ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage" and that reform in this direction can begin after 2007. The second reform would be to increase the number of seats on Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) that are democratically elected (at present only half of its 60 seats are). Reform of this process is allowed after 2008.

This sort of democratic reform is popular in Hong Kong. A half million Hong Kong citizens marched in protest on July 1st last year to protest overly vague and harsh anti-subversion laws. A hundred thousand of them marched for democracy on New Year's Day this year.

But Beijing has put the brakes on reform. Hong Kong's autonomy lies in its being "self-governing under the authorization of the central government," says Beijing, and the Standing Committee responsible for Hong Kong should only allow reforms that would ensure its "long-term prosperity and stability." One senior Chinese official suggested that China's National People's Congress would dissolve the LegCo if too many pro-democracy candidates were chosen in this coming September's elections. The Chinese government even brought out one of the drafters of the Basic Law, Xiao Weiyun, to opine that democracy in the SAR could ultimately come "in the 2040's" or even "the 2030's, but absolutely not as soon as 2007." Because Hong Kong's "Fifty-years, No-Change" status under China's model of "one Country, two Systems" lapses in 2047, whatever democratic reforms are in place by "the 2040s" could theoretically expire within a few years, when it reverts to socialist control.

Clearly, the authoritarian regime in Beijing believes that democracy in Hong Kong undermines its legitimacy and that, therefore, Hong Kong must be made completely subordinate to the "leadership of the Communist Party." So much for "one Country, two systems."

In 1992, the United States Congress passed the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act. In it, the United States reiterated its "support for democratization" and its need to "play an active role … in maintaining Hong Kong's confidence and prosperity." While the Administration has expressed concern about the quashing of democratic reform in Hong Kong, the United States needs to do more. More specifically:

The Administration needs to make Hong Kong a priority in U.S.-China relations and emphasize the need for 'universal suffrage' within the 2007 to 2008 timeframe in any talks with China;

Congress should hold Hong Kong Policy Act hearings to review whether the "one Country, two Systems" structure continues to justify trade, customs, and national security treatment of Hong Kong as separate jurisdiction from China; and

Both Congress and the Administration should publicly reject Beijing's attack on the patriotism of Hong Kong's democrats.

Unless America's political leaders take a firm stand in support of democracy in Hong Kong, they call into question America's strategic commitment to the global expansion of democracy.

John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


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