April 29, 2005

MEMORANDUM TO: OPINION LEADERS

FROM: ELLEN BORK, Deputy Director

SUBJECT: Hong Kong: Three Strikes, You’re Out?

On Wednesday, Beijing announced it will ignore the provisions of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s so-called constitution, that govern the term of office for the Beijing-appointed chief executive. This is the third time that Beijing has chosen to “reinterpret” the language of the Basic Law to suit its political requirements. Last year, Beijing reinterpreted the Basic Law to rule out steps toward greater democracy in the near future, and in 1999, it forced a reversal of a decision by Hong Kong’s highest court.

To listen to the Bush administration, however, you might think this most recent interference by Beijing is a good thing. According to James Keith, America’s Consul General in Hong Kong, Wednesday’s intervention was an improvement over the last one because there was better communication between Beijing and Hong Kong. “It is natural that the process will be a little rocky at times,” because both Beijing and Hong Kong are on a “learning curve.”

Donald Tsang, Beijing’s new top apparatchik, also offered empty reassurances. Eager to win Beijing’s approval for a full term in the future, Mr. Tsang advised the Hong Kong people to “take these issues pragmatically with a heart at ease.” But he suggested some sensitivity to their concerns. After all, he said, “We used to use the common law tradition.” (Emphasis added.)

Sir Donald’s reference to Hong Kong’s common law system in the past tense should sound the alarm in London and Washington. Continuation of the common law system was a specific promise of Beijing’s, often cited as a key barometer of Hong Kong’s autonomy by the international community.

The problem is that neither the common law, nor anything else Beijing promised Hong Kong, such as civil liberties and judicial independence, stands a chance without the democratization of Hong Kong that China’s rulers are adamant about preventing. On that point, the U.S. is compliant as well. “The central government will do whatever they deem appropriate, based on their own interpretation of their own interests," Mr. Keith said. “But as they consider the consequences and the impact of Hong Kong's success in the future, inevitably they will think about the international context.”

It is not clear what “consequences” or “international context” Mr. Keith referred to. The international community and the U.S. have failed to respond in the past, and, as Mr. Keith’s remarks and the silence from the upper echelons of the Bush administration suggest, it appears that no response is planned now. Is anyone paying attention on Capitol Hill?