- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

In recent weeks China visited the future. A half-million demonstrators in Hong Kong let Chinese leaders know they will not tolerate antisubversion laws that erode civil liberties.

This is the first challenge against totalitarian control and an object lesson for Hu Jintao, China’s new leader. What he confronts in Hong Kong at the moment is most likely what he will confront in the rest of China a decade from now.

The chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, has acted as a puppet to the Chinese ventriloquists — earning the enmity of almost every Hong Kong resident. Although the demonstrators forced the government to at least temporarily shelve these restrictive laws, people can still be charged with treason and sedition for challenging the government.

My friend, Liu Kin Ming, one of the leaders of the demonstration, contends the police regularly engage in security probes without warrant. As he notes, Beijing promised a high degree of autonomy when Britain transferred its former colony to China in 1997, but this promise has only been honored in the breach. “One country, two systems” is a slogan whose time has passed.

As Mr. Liu sees it, the issue is not merely antisubversion law (Article 23), but a desire for self-government. Hong Kong residents are eager to envision a city of 7 million with its own elected officials. At the moment, only 24 of the 60 members are elected directly. The rest are chosen by a Beijing-friendly group of electors.

Clearly, the Chinese government does not want to undermine Hong Kong’s $270 billion economy that serves as a major source of foreign investment. On the other hand, Chinese leaders fear a wave of democratic sentiment in Hong Kong could sweep the entire nation. Should protests flare inside China resembling those in Hong Kong, the disintegration of the government could follow.

The last time demonstrators challenged the government in China at Tiananmen Square, convulsions were felt across the nation. For a time, China’s dictators appeared to be in full retreat. It is therefore hardly surprising that the present leadership backed away from its threat to civil liberties in Hong Kong once the protests began in earnest.

What the world sees in Hong Kong is the visible side of a crisis deeply embedded in China itself. Will this “sickness” lead inexorably to the fall of communist government? One could argue that when totalitarian governments fall, they fall hard and fast. Is China poised for this event? Is it possible that the first steps on the road to liberty start in Hong Kong?

To succeed as the leader in Hong Kong, Tung Chee?hwa must have the confidence of the city’s residents. To succeed in the eyes of his Chinese benefactors, he must be malleable and open to demands. The two positions are mutually incompatible. Most certainly, they are not sustainable. There isn’t a middle course.

Is Hong Kong ungovernable? I think so. With television cameras focused on Hennessey Road, the Chinese dare not crack down on protesters. However, it is also true the Chinese government cannot let the demonstrators dictate policy since that will only inspire protests elsewhere.

If the government permanently ignores or retreats on Article 23, its weakness will be apparent. If it chooses to enact the law later, demonstrations are assured. If an unambiguous timetable for transition to self-government is established, a precedent will have been established for other Chinese settings. There isn’t an easy resolution for Beijing.

But there is an appropriate U.S. response. We should stand on the sidelines and cheer. These Hong Kong demonstrators deserve our admiration. They carry the torch of liberty and, in a sense most that Americans can appreciate, are our brothers and sisters. What the tariff on tea did for the American Revolution in the 18th century, Article 23 may do for a Chinese revolution in the 21st century. May providence smile on these brave Hong Kong residents.

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University, the publisher of American Outlook and author of the recently published “Decade of Denial” (Lexington Books).

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