Almost exactly six years ago, Hong Kong was surrendered by Great Britain to Communist China. There to bear witness the turn-over of the Crown Colony to the PRC, I wrote:
“The strategic import of this moment is being deliberately overshadowed by the forced gaiety of round-the-clock ‘celebrations.’ One cannot, however, help but feel -- surrounded by the red-and-yellow banners, dragons, lamps, flags and other regalia of the new masters of Hong Kong -- the alarm experienced by those who saw Hitler's troops welcomed into Austria and the Sudetenland with swastikas and brown shirts.
“The innumerable television cameras in town to record the surrender seem largely distracted by the pomp of various ceremonies attended by high-ranking U.S. officials and their counterparts from other free nations. These foreign representatives are content to mouth platitudes about ‘orderly transitions’ and their intentions to ‘hold the People's Republic of China accountable’ for preserving Hong Kong's freedoms.
“For their part, the leaders of the PRC and the quislings they have anointed to govern Hong Kong are only too willing to play back what the West would like to hear. ‘Two systems, one country’ is the mantra of the day. This evidently is meant to convey the idea that Hong Kong will be ‘free’ -- free to be a capitalist police-state along the lines of Singapore. China will pursue its own brand of ‘state capitalism’ with a less-than-human face....
“The Chinese Communists are counting on the Clinton Administration and the majority of the ‘business first’ U.S. Congress to follow past practice. If so, it would seem a safe bet that the United States -- empty rhetorical warnings aside -- will look-the-other-way as Beijing crushes Hong Kong's freedoms, so long as the PRC does so in a stealthful, incremental fashion. Will they be proven right? Is this what we have become as a people? If so, then more than Hong Kong will enter what Winston Churchill once termed ‘a new dark age.’”
This pregnant question is now confronting not the Clinton Administration, but its successor and the Republican-controlled 108th Congress. For the PRC is poised to effect its latest -- and perhaps terminal -- effort to strip the people of Hong Kong of their freedoms: a legislative initiative expected, all other things being equal, to be adopted on July 9 by the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong Legislative Council under Article 23 of the so-called “Basic Law.” It could be used to deny freedom of religion, press and expression guaranteed by the Chinese when Britain agreed to turn over its colony in 1984.
One of the most courageous of Hong Kong’s minority of democratically elected legislators, Martin Lee, has warned that “It is no overstatement to say that this is truly a last opportunity to preserve the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.”
After a meeting with Mr. Lee last week, the chairman and vice chairman of the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Roger Robinson and Richard D’Amato, respectively, warned in a letter sent Friday to the Senate and House leadership that the “legislation...would give the Beijing-sponsored Hong Kong Government the ability to criminalize a wide range of religious, political and journalistic activities without due process or basic legal standards.” The congressionally mandated commission urged that “Congress take strong action as soon as possible opposing the proposed legislation and requesting that the Hong Kong Government withdraw the bill from consideration” and that “the President and Secretary of State should argue forcefully against the bill with their Chinese counterparts.”
As during the Clinton years, of course, there are countervailing pressures. The trade lobby will resist anything that might upset Beijing. President Bush is, moreover, being told that China can be helpful with its ever-more belligerent client, North Korea (although the PRC appears to enjoy the leverage that flows from the bad behavior of a proxy it equipped with nuclear and missile technology).
Mr. Bush also wants Beijing’s help on the war on terror (even though China, like Russia, has long had ties with all the state-sponsors of terror and some of the organizations they harbor and abet). And the Administration wants the Chinese government to stop its companies, like Norinco, from proliferating ballistic missile and other dangerous technology to the likes of Iran (as if this could have happened in China’s police state without government knowledge and clandestine approval).
Unfortunately, were Mr. Bush now to turn a blind-eye to the crushing of what remains of Hong Kong’s freedoms, it is predictable that the Chinese Communists’ ominous aspirations to extend their sway still further will be greatly encouraged. Coercive pressure will be applied against democratic Taiwan; it is even possible that an avoidable cross-strait war might be inspired by the West’s failure to stand up for Hong Kong. Inevitably, Beijing will be reinforced in its belief that, in due course, it will be able displace the United States as the preeminent Asian power and once again dominate that land-mass and the Western Pacific.
China’s new power on Hong Kong’s Article 23 play thus poses a momentous challenge for President Bush: As he commendably seeks to bring freedom to those around the world who have never known it, will he sit idly by as freedom is taken away from those in Hong Kong who yearn to continue to enjoy it?