WASHINGTONNone of the predictions that were made 10 years ago regarding Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China turned out to be right. China did not wreck the system that has made Hong Kong the 10th leading economy in the world, as pessimists anticipated, nor was Hong Kong able to spread civil liberty and the rule of law to mainland China, as the optimists thought it would.
The fact that China has not wrecked Hong Kong does not mean it hasn’t meddled. It haspolitically, judicially and economically. The first kind of interference is best exemplified by Beijing’s replacement of the democratically elected legislature left in place by Chris Patten, the last British governor, with a mixed body in which democrats are in the minority even when they obtain, as they did in the last elections, 60 percent of the vote.
A good illustration of China’s intervention in Hong Kong’s judiciary was the decision to overturn a ruling in favor of universal suffrage by the Court of Final AppealHong Kong’s well-respected highest court. An example of intervention in economic matters was the decision of communist authorities not to allow PCCW, Hong Kong’s largest telecom company, to sell its main assets to foreigners.
But the great story of the last decade is that these bouts of meddling do not attest to the authoritarian nature of Beijing’s Communist Party as much as they signify the extraordinary resilience of Hong Kong’s system and the ability of its citizens to preserve it. Every time the New Territoriesas they are calledhave perceived excessive intrusion from mainland China, the people have reacted vigorously. A few years ago, they took to the streets to protest a law that would have curtailed their civil liberties, forcing Beijing to backtrack. At the same time, Hong Kong residents have carefully avoided the kind of violent actions that would have given Beijing a pretext to apply Tiananmen-style tactics and crush the “one country, two systems” arrangement.
The strength of the institutions that protect property rights and civil liberties in Hong Kong is such that only a full-scale armed intervention could destroy them at this pointsomething Beijing wants to avoid because of the obvious costs involved. That, again, is a merit that lies with the people of Hong Kong, who have learned to contain Beijing with a mixture of civic courage and political prudence.
Hong Kong’s resilience has not only allowed it to survive Beijing’s meddling, but also to defeat major challenges such as the Asian financial crisis at the end of the 1990s and, more recently, the SARS epidemic, both of which would have seriously undermined a less open society.
Even if theirs is one of the freest societies, the citizens of Hong Kong are perfectly conscious of their political limitations. They do not have a say in who governs them, nor is their government, personified by the chief executive, accountable to the taxpayers. Other problems derived from this fact limit some of their civil freedomsa recent survey by The Economist magazine indicates that self-censorship is widespread in the media.
China has broken every democratic pledge it has made since the “Joint Declaration” with which London and Beijing kicked off in 1984 the process by which sovereignty was eventually handed over. Even the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, promises political freedom.
But China knows that a move toward political freedom might stir things up in the mainland, possibly starting with the crucially important Guangdong province nearby. But, for the moment, the communist government is content with resisting, rather than crushing, the aspirations of Hong Kong’s citizens. In this, as in other areas, the merit goes to that territory’s civic maturity.
If things continue as they are for another 10 years, it is hard to see how Hong Kong’s aspirations will remain unrealized. Its citizens have been able to preserve their system against all odds. Many of China’s rulers are aging and the new generations of communist leaders will probably be less determined to prevent the political opening of Hong Kong than the citizens of Hong Kong are determined to be fully free.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His weekly column is syndicated worldwide by the Washington Post Writers Group, and his Independent Institute books include Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.
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