It's time to bury the stereotype of Hong Kong as a money-obsessed city where people have no time for politics. The sweeping victory for pro-democratic candidates in Hong Kong's recent legislative election shows that the citizens of one of the world's most prosperous colonies want strong voices in favor of human rights, a fair legal system, and free speech. Most of all, they demand politicians who will stand up for what Hong Kong has been promised all along: a large dollop of autonomy once the territory reverts to Chinese rule in mid-1997.
The vote was a clear slap at China. Beijing tried to bully voters into supporting pro-China candidates by promising that they would provide a smoother transition to Chinese rule 21 months hence. Voters didn't believe Beijing and elected 17 of 20 pro-democracy candidates from Martin C. M. Lee's Democratic Party in elections for Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo). Repulsed, China is now repeating its earlier threats to disband LegCo. And there's precious little reason to expect Beijing's aged and insecure rulers to adopt a more tolerant attitude toward democracy and dissent anytime soon.
Ironically, the vote was also an implicit rejection of Britain. Voters said in effect that they trusted Lee, not British Governor Chris Patten, to do their negotiating with China in the months ahead to 1997. Lee, with a reputation for an uncompromising attitude toward the rights of the Hong Kong people, is expected to use his new bloc in LegCo to stop Britain from bargaining away any of the colony's political freedoms or human rights. Lee's strategy appears to be one of staking out as much of a separate identity for Hong Kong before the handover and then count on pressure from the international business community to keep it relatively free.
With Britain a fading power, Hong Kong is looking for allies. The U.S. is its best hope, albeit a slim one. The U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act ties U.S.-China relations to China living up to its promise to give Hong Kong a large measure of freedom when it takes over. Regular reporting on Hong Kong mandated by the law is supposed to ensure that China's policies are exposed to the light of day. The goal in all of this is to allow Hong Kong to continue to operate as a semiautonomous entity with special rights within China rather than just another Chinese city.
But it's unrealistic to expect the U.S. to step in and jeopardize the entire fabric of Sino-American relations. As long as the current leadership transition is incomplete, political forces in China are likely to remain uncomfortable with Hong Kong's--and Taiwan's--democratic practices. China may be expected in the short run to chisel away slowly at the freedom in Hong Kong. Under these conditions, it would be downright dangerous for conservative congressional representatives to try to enlist Hong Kong's pro-democracy candidates in a strategy of containing China. It would be dangerous for Hong Kong's democrats as well as for U.S.-China relations.
American businesses are one of the few foreign voices China heeds, for U.S. multinationals are key providers of the money and knowhow China needs. Some vigorous private lobbying from business would go a long way to help Hong Kong. China's leaders worry that a free Hong Kong would be a base for anti-government activities. But business could help Beijing understand that China will suffer more than anyone if Hong Kong loses its luster as Asia's most dynamic commercial and financial capital.