The city skyline in Hong Kong
The promise the Chinese government made to Britain and to the world as Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control at midnight on June 30, 1997, that China would abide by the "one country, two systems" plan, which would afford Hong Kong greater autonomy, except in matters of foreign relations and defense, was to last 50 years.
That promise is falling 33 years short of fulfillment.
The communist government in Beijing has been nipping at the edges of Hong Kong's freedoms for some time, but last Sunday it decided to take a bigger bite. Writes The New York Times, "China's legislature laid down strict limits ... to proposed voting reforms in Hong Kong, pushing back against months of rallies calling for free, democratic elections." The "strict limits" include new guidelines for nominating candidates, which means Beijing would choose who runs the city's government.
A deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, Li Fei, was quoted by the Times as saying future candidates must declare that they "love the country, and love Hong Kong." Li Fei contends the new restrictions will "protect the broad stability of Hong Kong now and in the future."
Stability is often invoked by the Chinese government to repress dissent and was also cited as justification for the mass murder of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
I was in Hong Kong for the 1997 handover ceremony. There was guarded optimism that Beijing would allow the city to continue to enjoy the kind of freedom unique among totalitarian states. At the time I wrote: "Many are more cautious than optimistic about this dynamic city's future under a government that has demonstrated at Tiananmen Square that it will kill its own citizens if it ever feels threatened."
Martin Lee, founding chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, told me that doing nothing in the face of threats to freedom ensures those freedoms will be lost: "It's wrong to be worried, to be afraid and to give up your freedoms. Let them take them away from us, if that's what they want. We must not ourselves surrender our freedoms."
Any erosion of Hong Kong's freedom, I wrote in '97, was likely to be gradual and so it has been. With America in retreat around the world, lacking a definable foreign policy, and with the British a mere shadow of their former empirical selves, what's to stop China from escalating that erosion?
Martin Lee told me that no amount of external pressure will stop China's leaders from doing what they want to do if they feel threatened: "Tiananmen teaches the lengths the Chinese leaders will go to preserve their power. China was doing well economically before the massacres, and yet when the leaders felt jeopardized by the opposition, they brought in the tanks and soldiers and started to shoot and kill and ruined their own economy for three years. Of course, the Hong Kong goose is important to them. So is Taiwan. But they are only secondary (to) the main objective -- which is to remain in power. If they believe their position is jeopardized by an internal struggle for power, they would sacrifice anything, including the goose."
Some, including me, expressed hope that Hong Kong's freedom might eventually lead to China's liberation from communism. Maybe it will in the long run, but that possibility seems a long way off. Those pro-democracy demonstrators must now decide whether to continue their protests, running the risk of another Tiananmen, or submit to the dictatorship.
As for the broken promise of one country, two systems, it should surprise no one that communists and other dictators lie.
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Cal Thomas, America's most-syndicated columnist, is the author of 10 books.