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  • Broken Promises:Hong Kong Faces 1997
  • Martin C.M. Lee (bio) and Tom Boasberg (bio)

During a century and a half of British colonial rule, the people of Hong Kong have been denied the experience of democratic government. At the same time, however, this bustling port city has established itself as the freest place in Asia—not only for trade and commerce, but also with respect to such personal and civil liberties as the right to a fair trial and freedom of the press. The people of Hong Kong are determined to expand their rights to include that of democratic self-government, for they fear that without democratic elections they may lose the rule of law and human rights guarantees that they have long enjoyed and so highly cherish. In three short years, sovereignty over the six million inhabitants of Hong Kong will be transferred from Britain to the People's Republic of China (PRC), and neither China nor Britain is honoring their joint promise that Hong Kong could look forward to exercising full autonomy over its own internal affairs. If this promise remains unfulfilled, then the light of freedom and hope that Hong Kong represents for China's 1.1 billion people may well be extinguished.

In 1984, the governments of the People's Republic of China and Great Britain signed the Joint Declaration on the Future of Hong Kong, in which Britain pledged to transfer sovereignty over the Crown Colony of Hong Kong to the PRC on 1 July 1997. In the Joint Declaration, China promised that Hong Kong would retain its capitalist economy for at least 50 years after 1997, and that the people of Hong Kong would be allowed to govern themselves in all matters except defense and foreign affairs, which would be the responsibility of the central [End Page 42] government in Beijing. Deng Xiaoping encapsulated the PRC's declared intentions in a trio of four-Chinese-character phrases: Beijing's policy toward Hong Kong would be grounded on the principle of "one country, two systems," meaning that "Hong Kong people will rule Hong Kong" with "a high degree of autonomy." For its part, Britain promised that it would use the 13-year transition period between the 1984 Joint Declaration and the 1997 transfer of sovereignty to transform its unelected colonial administration into a government democratically elected by the people of Hong Kong.

Ten years after the Joint Declaration, however, and only three years before the handover, it has become clear that neither Britain nor China is going to honor the promises that each made in the Joint Declaration. Almost before the ink was dry on the treaty, the PRC Government began to backpedal from its promises of self-rule for Hong Kong. The Beijing-drafted Hong Kong Basic Law, which is to serve as the territory's post-1997 constitution, reneges on the Joint Declaration's promise of democratic elections and ensures that Beijing will be able to exercise authoritarian control over Hong Kong. As 1997 draws closer, the communist regime's threats and meddling grow stronger by the day.

In order both to appease the PRC and to maintain control over Hong Kong during the twilight of its colonial rule, Britain has disavowed its own transition responsibility of developing democratic institutions in the colony. It has promised Beijing that it will allow for no more than a third of the colony's 60-seat legislature (known formally as the Legislative Council, or Legco) to be democratically elected before 1997, and executive power remains firmly in the hands of the British governor appointed from London. While Hong Kong's latest governor, former Conservative party chairman Chris Patten, has angered Beijing by proposing some modest last-minute democratic reforms, the fury probably has more to do with Patten's rhetoric and style than with the actual content of his limited proposals.

It is imperative that Britain use the final years of its rule to respond at last to Hong Kong's need for genuinely democratic institutions. China, likewise, must be persuaded to amend its authoritarian Basic Law and allow Hong Kong the autonomy promised in the 1984 treaty. If the PRC attempts, as it is...


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