»  National Review Online

July 15th, 2003

  The Curtain Falls

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Once upon a time, a great commercial seafaring nation established a trading colony on the shores of a moribund, despotic eastern empire. The colony flourished for a century and more while the empire slowly crumbled around it. It kept its vitality even when the power and wealth of its founding nation declined. Then at last the old empire was swept away, replaced by a fresher, more vigorous, despotism. These new despots at first came to terms with the merchants of the colony. Soon, however, the imperial rulers began to find the city's freedoms intolerable. The dull narcotic of imperial bureaucratism seeped into the streets and marketplaces, into the very veins and arteries of the people themselves, until at last the once-thriving colony became a a dull, lackluster place of no commercial or geopolitical significance.

I am writing, of course, about Pera, on the shores of the Bosphorus. The city was given to the Genoese by Byzantine Emperor Michael Palaeologus in 1265, in gratitude for Genoa having helped the Empire restore itself to some semblance of health after the ravages of the Fourth Crusade. Genoa herself came under foreign rule in 1396, but Pera continued to thrive, until the troops of the Turkish conqueror Mehmed II swarmed over the last remnants of the Byzantine empire in 1453. In the words of Gibbon: "[T]he spirit of commerce survived that of conquest; and the colony of Pera still awed the capital and navigated the Euxine, till it was involved by the Turks in the final servitude of Constantinople itself." Pera is now Beyoglu, an outer district of Istanbul.

Hong Kong was spared a similar fate for half a century after Mao Tse-tung's armies took China in 1949. It is becoming ever more clear, though, that this was a temporary defiance of the laws of gravity, or at any rate the laws of imperial-despotic power-lust.

The hand-over of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was carried out under the terms of an agreement negotiated between the British and Chinese governments in the late 1980s, referred to by everyone as the "Basic Law." Article 23 of this document reads as follows:

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.

The Hong Kong executive has been trying to write those laws and get them through the territory's legislature. This should not have been a very difficult thing to accomplish. Only 24 of the 60 member of Hong Kong's legislature are actually elected by a free vote among ordinary citizens; the rest are, though to differing degrees of commitment, Peking place-men. Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa ("Dong Jianhua" in Mandarin, with "Dong" the surname) was likewise appointed by Peking. It follows, of course, that the proposed laws "prohibiting any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion …" closely follow the standard communist model. That is to say, they are so broadly phrased that anything at all likely to be displeasing to Peking — membership of the Falun Gong meditation sect, for instance, or words spoken in support of Tibetan independence — could be prosecuted under them.

Given the composition of the legislature, these laws should have been waved through. They probably will be passed sooner or later, perhaps with a few cosmetic changes. For the time being, however, Mr. Tung and his masters in Peking have been stymied by popular resistance. There were enormous demonstrations in central Hong Kong on July 1st, with nearly one in ten of the population on the streets to protest the laws. China's new prime minister, Wen Jiabao, had ended a visit to the city just hours before, and must have been furious to learn of the demonstrations — the more so as July 1st is the anniversary of Britain's handing over Hong Kong in 1997. China's communist rulers are exquisitely sensitive to slights of that kind.

Then, on July 7, two days before Tung wanted to bring the proposed laws before the legislature, one of his key cabinet members resigned, taking with him the crucial support of his party in the legislature. This party is a millionaire's club, its eight legislators not among those elected by common suffrage, and it is not clear why they should have been hostile to Tung's proposed legislation. The city's business leaders have, to put it mildly, not been prominent among those standing up to Peking's bullying. Hong Kong's economic situation has been pretty dire for some years, though, and the recent SARS epidemic of course made things worse. Probably the millionaire's club just did not want the world to get the impression that Hong Kong was about to be further "Sinified" when business is at such a low ebb.

Be that as it may, Hong Kong now has one seriously embarrassed chief executive — a Dong with a luminous nose, you might say. (All right, it's a stretch. You couldn't expect me to do nothing at all with that "Dong," though, could you?

But when the sun was low in the West,
The Dong arose and said:
"What little sense I once possessed
Has quite gone out of my head!")

Latest indications are that spines are stiffening in Peking, and correspondingly in Hong Kong's Executive Council. There have been further popular demonstrations, but, given the fine sensitivity of Chinese people to which way the political winds are blowing, much smaller than the July 1 event. A team of "public security" snoops has come down from Peking, and is questioning protest organizers. The questioning has so far been polite; but the ancient Chinese principle in these cases is sha ji xia hou — "kill a chicken to scare the monkeys." Once a few suitable chickens have been identified and dealt with, continuing to demonstrate will become a very scary enterprise indeed.

The official U.S. response to these events came in a July 7 State Department noon briefing, at which spokesman Richard Boucher extruded the following slab of boilerplate:

The controversy surrounding the [Article 23] legislation underscores the great importance of Hong Kong's move towards democracy. We urge the government to begin discussion of this essential component of Hong Kong's success in accordance with the Basic Law's mandate. Hong Kong should make tangible progress towards the basic laws goal of universal suffrage, a democratically elected government answerable to the will of the people, and that's the best way to ensure the protection of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong.

The Chinese Communist Party has, needless to say, no interest at all in "fundamental freedoms," nor even in "Hong Kong's success." Success, to the communists, means staying in power. If they believed that this required deporting the entire population of Hong Kong to the labor camps of Qinghai Province, and reducing the city's proud building to rubble by aerial and artillery bombardment, they would not hesitate to do those things.

The "one country, two systems" formula that forms the main premise of the Basic Law was originally intended to advance the program of "recovering" China's "lost territories" by presenting a practical, non-ideological approach, with Taiwan as the ultimate prize. The Taiwan people, however, have shown no signs of having been favorably impressed by China's handling of Hong Kong, and opinion in the Peking leadership seems to be trending towards a military solution for that particular bit of unfinished business. Further, if news of the Hong Kong demonstrations becomes widely known in the mainland, the democratic emotions on display might prove infectious. Chances are, therefore, that Peking is rapidly tiring of the "one country, two systems" play, and will soon pull down the curtain on it.

How much this matters (other than to the Hong Kongers themselves, I mean) depends on larger events in China over the next few years. Most of those who are hopeful about China have put their trust in the "midwife" theory: the idea, that is, that the Chinese Communist Party, as unlovely and unwilling as it is, will serve as a midwife for a free, democratic China, by suppressing disruptive political activity until China's population is prosperous and well-educated enough to be able to practice democracy. The most recent statement of this position was presented by Fareed Zakaria in his book The Future of Freedom. The book's argument is really just a buffed-up version of the "modernization theory" that was popular among political scientists in the 1960s, and whose roots go back to ancient Greek prescriptions for rule by aristocrats or wise guardians, the common people being too fractious and dim-witted to decide large matters for themselves. For an unsparing demolition of this thesis, see Robert Kagan's hostile review of Zakaria's book in the July 7 issue of The New Republic. (I think you need to be a subscriber.)

Nobody knows what is going to happen in China, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. My own readings — and I read books, scholarly articles, and "deep" journalism about China almost daily — tell me that among foreign observers, China-pessimists like me now clearly outnumber China optimists. For a particularly grim recent example of China-pessimism, see Arthur Waldron's piece in the July/August issue of Commentary. (If you are not a subscriber, it will cost you two dollars here. I am sorry about these links to subscription services that want you to pay to read their journalism … though, speaking as a journalist, I am not very sorry.)

If we pessimists are right about events in China, the omens for Hong Kong are not good. As the skies over the mainland darken, the beleaguered communists will revert to Leninist type, repudiating agreements, turning away from economic sense (to the degree that they have ever really faced it), and striking out savagely at all opposition. Such freedoms as Hong Kong has held on to will not survive such a catastrophe. If China breaks up, the city might regain some independence, or even thrive as the commercial capital of a Cantonese state. More likely the communists, or the military junta that succeeds them, will maintain central control by force and police terror. Hong Kong's talented people will flee for happier climates, and that marvelous, improbable city will revert to what it once was: a shabby second-rate place, a dull backwater, Pera become Beyoglu.

[The best book on modern Hong Kong, for my money, remains Jan Morris's. Though written in the 1980s and thus seriously out of date in some important respects, it catches the personality of the place better than any other I know.]