- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

The leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has big trouble on its hands in Hong Kong. The people of the former British colony, which was handed over to Beijing in 1997, have decided that they are not satisfied with the rule of the Communist mainland, and they fear further erosion of their rights. For a year, street demonstrations have demanded more local autonomy and universal suffrage. The political standoff, which regularly brings the business center to a halt and has reduced the influence of the government, cannot go on forever. Eventually, Beijing will have to decide to loosen its grip on Hong Kongers — or clamp down. There is unfortunately no precedent for the democratic course.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, installed by Beijing, has never had the confidence of the populace. One of the consistent goals of the protests, which have brought as many as half a million people into the streets, is for Mr. Tung to step down —a fate he has avoided by holding the one requisite for power in Hong Kong: support from the Communist hierarchy.

Frustrated without a say in their government, Hong Kongers now demand that they be get to elect their leaders. The hope was to do so by 2007, when Mr. Tung’s term expires. However, Beijing has been clear that the regime has no intention of allowing democratic reforms anytime soon. Xiao Weiyun, a Beijing professor who helped draft Hong Kong’s current constitution — known as the Basic Law — said earlier in the week that Hong Kong suffrage “could be in the 2040s … but absolutely not as soon as 2007.” The potential crisis is that the frustrated people do not want to wait four decades for freedom.

Fifteen years ago, the outside world thought that Beijing was ready to indulge democracy advocates demanding reform in Tiananmen Square. Instead, the Communist government called in the tanks to massacre thousands, with the whole world watching on television. Since that tragedy, the government has been rewarded by the West, including admission to the World Trade Organization, the 2008 Olympics and even military exchanges with the Pentagon. All the while, religious persecution and violation of other human rights have become progressively worse. To date, engagement with the Chinese government has not improved the plight of the Chinese people.

Beijing considers any election or referendum in Taiwan as instigation for war, a mindset that is not promising for Hong Kong democrats. Without international pressure, Communist China has no incentive to open up. The PRC did $840 billion in foreign trade last year, making it the fourth-largest trader on the planet. The increasing connections between China and the West give Washington and other governments standing to express profound concern with anti-democratic developments in Hong Kong.

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