All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 2002

Beijing Erodes Hong Kong’s Laissez Faire

China's Political System Must Be Modernized

While the rest of the world is debating the terms under which they might engage China, authorities in Beijing are busy trampling on its agreement with the British over Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. In the handover agreement, both parties agreed on Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, as a document that provided assurances for Beijing’s “one country, two systems” pledge.

Most visitors to the former Crown Colony, now known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), would think that little had changed there. And they are partly right. Little has changed on the surface. Unfortunately, there has been a constant erosion and corrosion of the basic institutions Beijing promised to leave unsullied and intact.

It is clear that China’s authoritarian leaders hope that they can subvert these institutions to serve their own ends. On the one hand, they implemented a rigged electoral system that dilutes the democratic process and marginalizes reformists who promote democracy. At the same time, Beijing appointed a congenial but administratively challenged chief executive for the SAR to ensure compliance with their demands.

This would have been bad enough. However, there has also been a weakening of the judicial system. It bears pointing out that the openness and transparency of Hong Kong’s legal system was perhaps the most important underpinning of the material success and freedoms enjoyed there. Ironically, with the exception of Jimmy Lai, Hong Kong’s tycoons are too busy cutting deals with Beijing to realize what is happening. Most of the super-rich do not understand that the rule of law allowed them to become wealthy.

They are relying on their personal connections, guanxi in Chinese, to arrange favorable treatment from corrupt mainland officials. The bad news is that as these practices become perfected they will inevitably seep into business dealings in Hong Kong. The good news is that the forces of globalization assure that corrupt, authoritarian governments will join the Suharto regime in Indonesia in the dustbin of history.

A recent interference with Hong Kong’s affairs was revealed in a warning issued by Wang Fengchao, an official of the central government’s Liaison Office in the SAR. He insisted that the Hong Kong media not publish views advocating independence for Taiwan, declaring that journalists have a responsibility and an obligation to support reunification of China. In addition, the media should not disseminate information that might be interpreted as advocating the “two states” theory articulated by former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui or any others that might encourage independence. At the same time, Mr. Wang urged the SAR government to move quickly to enact an anti-subversion law based on Article 23 of the Basic Law, which authorizes national-security legislation.

A State Matter

In his warning, Mr. Wang asserted that his proposed limitations had nothing to do with press freedom because Taiwan is a state matter that should be dealt with differently from other news items. As if Beijing’s continued human rights abuses were not enough, Mr. Wang’s comments provide ample evidence that Communist Party officials do not understand the nature or the value of individual rights and freedoms.

The media has now been instructed that it must handle Taiwan-related news differently. Compliance with this demand would be tantamount to self-censorship and undermine editorial independence as the foundation of press freedom. In effect, the media would be reduced to being a tool to promote policies of the current ruling party.

At present, the Basic Law guarantees press freedom along with freedoms of speech and publication. It would be a stretch to imagine that restricting such freedoms is consistent with the spirit of Article 23.

These misguided actions are further corrupting the Basic Law and serve to make more implausible the terms offered to the Taiwanese people for unification under the conditions of autonomy promised to Hong Kong. At the same time, a crackdown in Hong Kong would destroy investors’ confidence in its laissez-faire institutions.

In another instance, Beijing violated the spirit of noninterference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs by indicating its displeasure with a ruling that would grant an extended right of abode to some mainland citizens. In response, the SAR government reversed the decision and issued a statement acknowledging Beijing’s right to reinterpret the Basic Law.

The insensitivity of China’s authoritarian leadership to Hong Kong citizens’ wish for greater economic and political freedoms sullies its own image. At the very least, it casts a pall over expectations of Beijing’s willingness to uphold international agreements that it considers inconvenient.

Although Marxism may have been sidelined for the moment, China remains in the grip of a Leninist power structure that is rigidly authoritarian. In its present incarnation the leadership in Beijing is not only going against the tide of human history; it also violates Lenin’s vision of anti-imperialism. In response to the colonial imperialism of his day, Lenin supported the rights of self-determination for all people. This should presumably include people in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Beijing insists on disregarding the expressed preferences of Chinese people in both places. The current leadership should build on the successes of Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the modernization of China’s economy. It should yield to the inevitable forces of history that demand a modernization of China’s political system.

Christopher Lingle is a professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín and author of The Rise and Decline of the Asian Century.

  • Christopher Lingle is senior fellow at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala.