London fails to call Beijing on its broken promises of autonomy.
A political showdown looms in Hong Kong. Beijing has stripped the city of the high degree of autonomy it promised in a 1984 treaty with the United Kingdom. Local residents are preparing a campaign of civil disobedience in protest. Yet London has failed to express even mild criticism of Beijing's treaty violation.
The people of Hong Kong
overwhelmingly want to elect their next Chief Executive, a reform that
until a month ago seemed within reach. On Monday university and
secondary students began a week-long boycott of classes to demonstrate
for democracy. A new
poll from Chinese University shows that one-fifth of the population is
considering emigration because of the city's uncertain future.
turmoil is the result of Beijing's shock decision at the end of August
to rig the 2017Chief Executive election with the most antidemocratic
system tabled by its local supporters. Only politicians who receive
majority support from a committee packed with Beijing's supporters will be allowed to run.
Communist Party's response to criticism is that any election conducted
with universal suffrage is a step forward. The Sino-British Joint
Declaration did not explicitly promise democracy, and the British didn't
introduce elections for legislators until five years before their
departure. So it is the "rankest hypocrisy,"in the words of the Chinese
ambassador to the U.K., for Chris Patten, the last colonial governor, to
claim London has a moral responsibility to speak up for Hong Kong.
desire for greater democracy was the critical issue facing Hong Kong
long before the 1997 handover. Beginning in 1985, a drafting committee
of local residents and Chinese officials created a constitutional
document, the Basic Law, reflecting the Sino-British Joint Declaration's
promise of self-government. "How
Hong Kong develops its democracy in the future is completely within the
sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong," Lu Ping, China's top official on
Hong Kong matters, promised in the People's Daily in March 1993. "The
central government will not interfere."
That's a promise Beijing broke.
In 2004 it reinterpreted the Basic Law to mean that Hong Kong could not
initiate political reform without its prior approval. In 2007 it ruled
out elections in 2012. Last month's decree mandates a vetting system
similar to the kind of "democracy" that exists in Iran, where thousands
of candidates are routinely disqualified by the regime.
signatory to the Joint Declaration, only the U.K. has the legal standing
to protest Beijing's broken promises. So how did London respond? For
four days, the Foreign Office said nothing. Finally it put out a
statement even more abject than silence: "We welcome the confirmation
that China's objective is for the election of Hong Kong's Chief
Executive through universal suffrage." Martin
Lee, Hong Kong's doughtiest fighter for democracy, rightly summed up
London's attitude as "kowtowing to Beijing for 30 pieces of silver."
Britain's power to influence developments in Hong Kong is limited. Yet
Beijing's xenophobic bluster shows that it still fears a principled
statement from London to defend the territory's autonomy. Chinese media
routinely accuse pro-democracy politicians of being funded by foreign
"black money"—even as Beijing pumps money into local puppet groups.
When Margaret Thatcher
agreed to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, she defended the
decision on grounds that the U.K. would hold Beijing to its treaty
commitments. Count that as one more Thatcherite legacy her successors
have failed to honor.