http://www.nbr.org - NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

China, Hong Kong, and Human Rights

Merle Goldman

The United States has clashed with China over a number of issues intellectual property rights, sales of nuclear weapons technology, the negative trade balance, and particularly the Taiwan conflict but the issue that has the potential for becoming the most explosive in the near future is China’s takeover of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997. Deng Xiaoping formulated an ingenious policy for the takeover: "one country; two systems." When Hong Kong reunites with China, Hong Kong will be able to continue its present system characterized by the rule of law, freedom of the press, an independent legislature, a merit-based civil service, and a laissez-faire economy for 50 years. This formula was written into the Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China in 1984. But the words and actions of China’s leaders in the past several months have already undermined the existing Hong Kong system.

Although China’s leaders do not want to kill the "golden goose" of Hong Kong and want to set a good example in Hong Kong for the future takeover of Taiwan, their own authoritarian system and narrow view of economic development limits their understanding of Hong Kong’s success. They view Hong Kong’s present prosperity and stability as purely an economic matter, dependent on its market economy, investment capital, entrepreneurs, and skilled, efficient workers. They do not seem to understand that Hong Kong’s non-economic characteristics impartial courts, freedom of expression, rule of law, complete openness to the outside world, an independent legislature, and an honest, capable civil service are equally important. Moreover, since the early 1990s Hong Kong’s formerly hand-picked Legislative Council, or Legco, has evolved into a democratically elected body. Although Hong Kong had been moving gradually in a democratic direction since the mid-1980s, the impetus for more direct democratic procedures came in reaction to China’s military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. At that time, over one million of Hong Kong’s six million citizens demonstrated against the crackdown and demanded more democratic institutions. Even before Governor Christopher Patten appeared on the Hong Kong scene in 1992, pressure for democratic legislative elections came from Hong Kong’s burgeoning middle class. Hong Kong had its first fully democratic election in 1995 when the Democratic Party, led by Martin Lee, became the majority party in the Legislative Council.

In the lead-up to the July 1, 1997, transition, Hong Kong’s economy is thriving, its stock market is soaring, and opinion polls show that the majority of the population is confident about the future. Nevertheless, China’s leaders have already started to subvert the non-economic institutions that have helped make Hong Kong the fourth largest trading power in the world after the European Union, the United States, and Japan, with a per capita standard of living higher than its British overlords. Once China regains sovereignty, the subversion of Hong Kong’s institutions and practices is likely to accelerate.