Wednesday, July 9, 2003

There was a rare victory for freedom in an unlikely place this week. In Hong Kong, the puppet government hand-picked by the Chinese Communist Party announced that it was delaying enactment of new, draconian anti-sedition laws. Known as Article 23 of the Basic Law, which is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the provisions would have severely curtailed the rights of free speech, association and a free press by making it easy for the government to jail people for vaguely defined, allegedly treasonous activity. Over the past few months, public opposition to the proposed law increased, culminating in last week’s protests that brought 500,000 onto the streets of the former British colony. Amazingly, the Communists in Beijing were intimidated and pulled the plug on the sedition law, at least for the time being.

The most important legacy of recent events is that Hong Kongers now have their own proof that standing up for their rights and freedoms can bring results. Since 1997, when Britain handed Hong Kong over to the Communists, against the will of the vast majority of Hong Kong residents, locals have been afraid to test the will of their new masters in mainland China. Opposition political groups were never very effective, and the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 served as a constant reminder that Beijing was still willing to send in tanks to crush its own people if they dare dissent.

The popular timidity has finally been broken. Mark Simon, deputy general manager of Apple Daily — Hong Kong’s influential pro-democracy, Chinese-language newspaper — told us that the sheer magnitude of the opposition to Beijing’s plans will have long-lasting political effect. “What no one can say is that this was a fringe march. There were tens of thousands of families from all walks of life. A huge swath of Hong Kong’s best and brightest took to the streets. Any government, even Beijing, pays attention to that.”

It is too early to tell whether the setback to Article 23 is Hong Kong’s Prague Spring. With new leadership running the Communist Party, it could take months before there is a hint that Beijing has decided the lesson they will take is to open up the system more or clamp down on dissent sooner next time. But as Mr. Simon reminds us, “What the world learned was that the people of Hong Kong really want and are ready for democracy. And just across the border in the mainland’s Guagzhou province, there are at least 50 million Chinese who know people power defeated authoritarianism this time.” The loss of prestige to Hong Kong’s government is profound, and it could in fact collapse. A thorough reshuffling of the cabinet and the ouster of Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa are real possibilities — and either event would reiterate that the Communist Party was forced to respond to the wishes of the people.

There have not been any great leaps forward regarding democratic progress and individual rights in the People’s Republic. But in standing up to their communist keepers, Hong Kongers showed their more than 1 billion countrymen in mainland China that resistance to tyranny can work so long as those who want freedom do not give up. If nothing else, that realization is a valuable little step forward.

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