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Hong Kong's Eroding Rights

July 14, 2002

Five years after Britain's handover of its colony of Hong Kong to China, the sky has not fallen. Fears of soldiers in the streets and a repressive dictatorship dismantling residents' rights proved overwrought. But disquieting developments raise concerns about the erosion of civil liberties under the formula known as "one country, two systems."

Much blame falls on Tung Chee-hwa, the former shipping magnate whom China selected as the territory's chief executive. Civil rights advocates criticize Tung for being overly subservient to China. Nor has he been aided by the recent downturn in the economy, a major concern in an enclave where businesspeople have always been powerful.

Even before taking office July 1, 1997, Tung warned that some freedoms might be sacrificed. In 1999, Hong Kong refused to let Pope John Paul II visit. Last year, the territory refused entry to scores of Falun Gong followers from abroad, even though the spiritual movement was legal in Hong Kong. The ban coincided with the visit of President Jiang Zemin of China; Falun Gong is outlawed there.

Recently, Tung picked 14 heads of government divisions in what he billed as an attempt to improve accountability. But the accountability will be only to him, not to voters or legislators; his selectees are unlikely to be as independent-minded as the British-style civil servants who served Hong Kong well for many years. Tung's lack of popularity with residents, as measured by polls, did not stand in the way of his being given a second five-year term by 800 electors cued by Beijing. He had no opposition.

Hong Kong residents deserve better than the exchange of one colonial master for another. The constitutional implication of free elections in 2007 seems unlikely to be fulfilled, especially after the comment of a Chinese deputy prime minister this month that Hong Kong's main need was "stability."

The cars and delivery trucks packing Hong Kong's streets and the supertankers in the crowded harbors can disguise economic problems that are real and threatening. Shanghai could surpass the territory commercially in a decade or so if it continues to improve infrastructure and emphasize technology and if Hong Kong fritters away advantages that include more freedom for residents and businesses.

Stopping the erosion of civil liberties would reassure investors that Hong Kong remains a good place to invest; more important, it would preserve residents' freedom after more than a century of colonial subjugation.

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