The Hong Kong question: The United States cannot remain neutral

| Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Nearly three weeks of anti-Beijing demonstrations in Hong Kong apparently have stalled out. But only in the short term. Make no mistake, despite the seemingly successful strategy of Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to exhaust and divide the largely student-led protesters, we are nonetheless witnessing one of the 21st century's most decisive confrontations.

The United Kingdom transferred Hong Kong to China in 1997 pursuant to a “Sino-British Joint Declaration,” guaranteeing Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years as a distinctive “special administrative region” of the People's Republic. Beijing would be responsible for foreign and defense policy but the joint declaration required that Hong Kong continue functioning as a unique entity under the “one country, two systems” concept China itself originally proposed.

Unfortunately, however, China has systematically undermined the declaration, taking an ever-firmer grasp of “internal” Hong Kong affairs. China's own economic growth has diminished the city-state's previous status as an economic colossus; Beijing is more confident it can act with impunity.

Hong Kong's “Basic Law” elaborates the joint declaration's intentions, providing ultimately for universal suffrage. But it is vague on specifics regarding the electoral process. Thus, after the handover, Hong Kong's chief executives all have been selected by a committee essentially handpicked by Beijing, thus guaranteeing the outcome.

Nonetheless, Beijing agreed that the 2017 chief executive election would be through universal suffrage. But it insisted that it screen and approve all potential candidates. This restriction obviously means that only nominations acceptable to Beijing will pass muster. So much for democracy.

For China's Communist Party, this issue is an existential question. The ability to accept or reject candidates for Hong Kong chief executive is absolutely critical for Beijing. Compromising could sign the party's death warrant as China's ruling power.

If “anti-Beijing” candidates can contest and even win Hong Kong elections, the rest of China will immediately notice, possibly spreading the democratic “infection” uncontrollably throughout the country.

Similarly, the student demonstrators and their supporters (including many scattered around China proper) see the issue as their last hope for sustaining representative government in Hong Kong. Beijing believes that the truly dominant opinion in Hong Kong is that business is more important than free elections. There is a generational gap on this issue. Hong Kong's older citizens remember the hardships they endured as refugees from the mainland before Hong Kong's remarkable economic growth. Beijing hopes to persuade them to maintain their focus on business as their dominant goal rather than free government, which they certainly did not enjoy while prospering under British rule.

In retrospect, one can ask whether Beijing ever intended to honor the joint declaration. Deng Xiaoping famously pressured Margaret Thatcher in 1982, saying, “I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon.” Indeed, “one country, two systems” originally was devised to reincorporate Taiwan into China; Taiwan emphatically rejected the concept, fearing that Beijing's authoritarian government would strangle its nascent democracy, whatever was initially agreed.

As the protests escalated, however, the initial U.S. response last month was pathetically weak. Our Hong Kong consulate issued a statement saying “we do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong's political development.” While the State Department has since modified this embarrassing stance, the Obama administration is still hiding in the weeds. Britain, Canada and Australia have all more vigorously supported the pro-democracy citizens.

China asserts that foreign countries should keep hands off because the status of Hong Kong's elections is a purely internal matter. This is manifestly false. The Sino-British Joint Declaration is an international agreement, a treaty ratified by both parties and even filed with the United Nations. China's failure to comply with the joint declaration's foundational objectives and obligations will long be remembered.

While we have not yet seen Chinese tanks on Hong Kong streets reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in June 1989, crushing democratic dissent in Hong Kong undercuts Beijing's credibility regarding all its international commitments, no matter the subject.

The United States cannot abandon or remain neutral in the struggle of Hong Kong's people to fully implement the joint declaration's clear intentions. For America in effect to ignore the push for truly free and fair elections in Hong Kong would signal to Beijing a free pass on whether China must honor its international agreements. This is not a matter of legal technicalities but of fundamental political honesty between governments and peoples.

Washington's weakness over Hong Kong will reverberate around the world, especially in the capitals of our adversaries. Declining U.S. protection of its own interests in eastern and central Europe (exemplified by passivity against Russian aggression in Ukraine); our collapsing influence in the Middle East; our failure to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and our inability to counter China's near-belligerent territorial claims in the South China Sea all point in the same direction. Hong Kong might seem distant but its future will tell us a lot about America's.

John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.

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