International Papers

Hong Kong Hustle

China crushes the territory’s dreams for democracy.

Hong Kong is gearing up for more protests about Beijing’s announcement Tuesday that it will claim preliminary veto power over any changes to the region’s election laws. According to the handover pact China made with Britain, which took effect in 1997, the SAR (or special administrative region) would eventually be allowed to amend its election laws. China’s veto has always been written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law, but the new ruling decrees that any such change must go through Beijing first—before, not after it moves through Hong Kong’s legislative machinery. In effect, the move throws the territory’s prospects of achieving a democratic system into further peril. *  Relations have been tense ever since a huge pro-democracy rally last July.

The Hong Kong press reacted to the move with grave misgivings. A fiery editorial from the English-language Daily Standard called the announcement “fatuous,” and argued that “[t]his is the politics of a bully masquerading as law.” Choosing a particularly grim metaphor for a region obsessed with SARS, the paper continued by suggesting that the heavy-handed tactic “is like infecting the territory with a deadly plague.” The Cantonese Apple Daily called the ruling a deadly blow to the much-touted idea of one country, two systems.

Other papers made less graphic appraisals. The pro-Beijing Singtao Daily tried to put a good face on things by arguing that the new interpretation “has still left a certain amount of space for constitutional development” (translations courtesy BBC monitoring). The South China Morning Post remained artfully neutral: “[T]he door to change, even in 2007, has been left tantalizingly open” and the paper insisted that Beijing must be talked off this ledge. In true Hong Kong style, “a deal must be done.”

Papers abroad, on the other hand, remained unconvinced of Hong Kong’s prospects for democracy. Canada’s Globe and Mail pulled out the mortality metaphor and declared the ruling “the death of Hong Kong’s democratic dreams.” It noted Beijing’s fear that the “democratic virus” might spread to the mainland if the country didn’t act with determination. Britain’s Guardian spoke up on behalf of Hong Kong’s former masters, arguing that China “has now moved the goalposts” on Hong Kong.

The most interesting comment came from another Asian city-state with freedom problems: Singapore. The Straits Times ran an ambiguous editorial, under the equally ambiguous headline “Hong Kong Ding Dong,” that argued Tuesday’s ruling “effectively stifles hopes that a China growing strongly would be big-hearted and confident enough to permit the territory free choice immediately after 2007.” And yet the piece also suggested that “gradual enfranchisement … is … as inexorable as evolution itself.” In spite of Hong Kong’s lackluster populace, “who were shamelessly quiescent” under the British, the region will eventually get its suffrage—not least because it will earn Beijing goodwill points as a “doctrine-shedding capitalist juggernaut.” Overall, the Singaporean take is this: Hong Kong has it good already, so who cares? “[I]n end, millions of Hong Kong people could still be wondering what the fuss is about. Democracy and freedom? But they have it in oodles in their enviable way of life.”

Correction, April 9, 2004: The article originally stated that China “will claim veto power over any changes to the region’s election laws.”In fact, the new ruling states that Beijing must be consulted before any amendment to election law is considered. Previously, Beijing only had to grant approval at the end of the amendment process.

The original text read: “According to the handover pact China made with Britain in 1997, the SAR (or special administrative region) could choose to amend its election laws after 2007.” The handover agreement between China and Britain was not made in 1997; it was made in 1984 and took effect in 1997. The Basic Law, which lays out Hong Kong’s election procedures, was drafted by Beijing under the guidelines of the handover agreement. It is this document that Beijing recently reinterpreted. Also, such changes could be made at any time. 2007 is viewed as a propitious date for change because it will herald Hong Kong’s next major election cycle. (Return to corrected paragraph.)