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Hong Kong, China, turns five

As the eyes of the world this summer focused on the Middle East, South Asia and Wall Street, Hong Kong quietly marked the fifth anniversary of its status as a Special Administrative Region of China. By most accounts, the first five years after its handover have gone as smoothly as the most optimistic observers had foreseen. Beijing, not surprisingly, has sought to mollify naysayers and skeptics by generally adhering to the policy of "one country, two systems." As a result, "the rule of law,... the independence of the judiciary... and essential rights and freedoms are being protected," quoting a report from the United Kingdom Foreign Office. But while the city remains one of the most free places in Asia, China is continually chipping away at Hong Kong's democratic policy.

Prior to 1997, a great number of Hong Kong residents had dire expectations for their future. The darkest moment came in 1989, following the Tiananmen massacre, when everyone knew that the British lease was running out. Tens of thousands of people lined up to wait in queues for a U.K. passport, so that, if nothing else, they would have a way of escaping what they feared would come. Their worst fears have not materialized, but the city is changing in subtle ways, and not for the better.

To Chinese central authorities, Hong Kong is an asset in the most literal sense of the word, given that this territory of barely 7.5 million people boosts the nation's GDP by over 20 percent. The profit motive has always driven their policy, and it always will. China needs the territory for economic reasons above all else, so it has no choice but to protect its most valuable investment.

For this reason, recent breaches of "one country, two systems" are not serious enough for Hong Kong to lose its appeal to foreign investors but enough for its residents to feel that their liberty is being curtailed. Consider the following list of ways in which the spirit of the laws is weakening.

Let us start with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's revamping of the city's civil service. A pragmatic centralizer, he was dissatisfied with the British-style system of dividing power between career bureaucrats and elected politicians. He pushed through legislation ensuring that all department heads would be appointed by him--not that he had to push very hard, since the legislature is packed with his supporters.

For obvious reasons, Tung lost the support of people who believed he would defend the city's liberties. His approval rating is lower than even the Chinese president. Tung won re-election in 2002 only because he was chosen not by the people but by an "election committee" full of pro-Beijing corporate magnates.

If Tung's leadership has been a sort-of tragicomedy, Hong Kong's immigration policy is a genuine tragedy for those directly involved. After a convoluted series of court rulings, appeals and administrative decisions, the verdict came down to nearly 5,000 mainland Chinese in late spring: They do not have the right of abode in the region.

The key point here is that at Tung's request Beijing overruled an earlier court decision favorable to the immigrants, all of whom have families in Hong Kong. The final ruling was technically in accordance with the constitution, but China's desire to control the flow of people into the wealthy region has triumphed over basic humanitarian sentiment. The pictures of people being forcibly separated from their relatives and driven to the border in heavily guarded police vans were shocking.

Finally, we come to the issue of free expression. While there have been few violations of this right for residents, it is beyond dispute that some who do not agree with Beijing politically are either denied entry or persecuted. Case in point: Harry Wu, the American human rights activist who spent 19 years in Chinese prisons, was recently detained at Hong Kong's airport and deported back to the United States. No comment from the authorities as to why, but the reason is all too clear. In August, a court found 16 Falun Gong followers guilty of causing a public obstruction because they dared to protest China's human rights record.

Are these the early stages of some nefarious plot to subvert Hong Kong's Western-style liberties? The answer is probably no, but it is becoming increasingly clear that those who unreservedly trusted China before the handover were deluding themselves. Hong Kong is not as free as it was on June 30, 1997; it may even be less free than it was before Britain granted it limited self-government; and it is certainly less free than Beijing would have us believe.

The city's vibrant civil society is rising to confront the undue encroachment on rights and freedoms, but it can never be strong enough to meet the challenge on its own. Hong Kong needs the firm support of international pressure, particularly from the United States and other countries that buy China's products and sell defense technology. The administration of Hong Kong is not a purely domestic issue, since the city's constitutional guarantees were enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty that China signed in good faith.

The limited restraint demonstrated by Beijing is not due to the Communist Party's noble intentions but rather its pragmatic recognition that there is no alternative if it wants to convince the outside world that "one country, two systems" is a success. There is one government in particular that Beijing desperately wants to persuade of this--and quickly. This government, of course, is Taiwan's, and it is left to be seen what conclusions it will draw from the Hong Kong experiment.

Pavel Molchanov is a Trinity senior. His column appears every other Tuesday.

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