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In five years, China weakens freedom in Hong Kong



Published: Mon, July 8, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Five years into China's 50-year experiment with "one country, two systems," it is not surprising to see that China is changing Hong Kong more than Hong Kong is changing China. And that's not a good thing.

When Great Britain turned Hong Kong over to China July 1, 1997, Hong Kong was defined as a Special Administrative Region and was to remain an independent democracy, except for matters of foreign affairs and national defense.

It cannot be denied that Hong Kong is a more open society by far than the rest of China. It is the only city in which people were allowed to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiannamen Square massacre last month, and 45,000 people gathered in a park for a candle-lit ceremony. Still, democracy advocates are concerned.

Signs of trouble

A once free press has become more timid. New antisubversion laws are subject to possible abuse. Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen is on record as saying that full democracy is not an option for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, is far less popular today than he was five years ago -- which is not surprising since Hong Kong has not been immune to worldwide financial problems, and nothing cuts into a politician's popularity like a little economic stagnation. Still, no one dared challenge him politically, and he was unopposed when re-elected to a second term.

He reorganized his cabinet by giving civil servants the boot and replacing them with people beholden to him -- and to Beijing. One of the cabinet members is the local proxy for the Chinese Communist Party.

These five years have to cause people to wonder what Hong Kong will be like 10 years into the SAR or 20 years.

Perhaps the pendulum will begin to swing the other way at some point, but we wouldn't bet on it.

Eyes across the strait

No one will be watching more anxiously than Taiwan. Leaders in Beijing point with pride to the nation's reunification with Hong Kong as if it should inspire the Taiwanese to accept reunification as well.

But in Taiwan, there is no question of the freeness of the economy or the openness of elections. The government didn't have to suppress an opposition political party that advocated reunification with the mainland. The party withered up and died all by itself.

China has nothing to show Taiwan that would make the people of that island want to follow the lead of Hong Kong.

Beijing is squandering a golden opportunity to demonstrate to the world that it recognizes that open economies and closed societies are not truly compatible.




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