London fails to call Beijing on its broken promises of autonomy.
Students take part in a rally at Chinese University of Hong Kong on Monday.GETTY IMAGES
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.
This turmoil is the result of Beijing's shock decision at the end of August to rig the 2017 Chief 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.
Editorial Page Writer David Feith on what the residents of Hong Kong need to do to preserve their freedoms. Photo credit: Getty Images.
The 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.
Yet the 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.
As a 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."
It's true 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.