It's Time to Clarify US-Hong Kong Relations

CONGRESS is considering legislation that seeks to establish the first-ever comprehensive US policy toward Hong Kong. "The United States-Hong Kong Policy Act," sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois, recognizes that it is no longer enough to treat Hong Kong as a footnote to our China policy. Nor is it enough to defer excessively to the British on all Hong Kong issues.

To be sure, US policy must take account of Chinese and British sensitivities and interests. Accordingly, the bill closely adheres to the policies established by China and Britain themselves in a 1984 treaty known as the Joint Declaration. Because it deftly balances US interests, the bill has won bipartisan support.

These interests are substantial. Hong Kong serves as the primary conduit for US-China business relations and promotes the economic, political, and social liberalization of southern China. In its own right, Hong Kong has become a major business partner of the US. Hong Kong is the world's busiest port and America's 11th largest trade partner, with total trade exceeding $25 billion per year. The average Hong Kong resident consumes $1,100 worth of American goods annually. Hong Kong absorbs over $7 billion of

US investment. Over 900 US companies operate there, including 250 Asian headquarters.

These business interests alone would be enough to justify the McConnell bill, but they do not alone motivate it. The human rights of 6 million Hong Kong residents are also at stake. In the Joint Declaration, Britain promised to return Hong Kong to China on June 30, 1997, provided that China permit Hong Kong to retain its liberal, capitalist system for at least 50 years. Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, its legislature would be democratically elected, and international human rights norms w ould be followed.

Events since 1984, particularly the Tiananmen Square massacre, have shaken public confidence that China intends to honor the Joint Declaration's promises. No statistic reflects this "confidence crisis" more clearly than the emigration of more than 62,000 people in 1990 - over 1 percent of Hong Kong's population. Recognizing that full implementation of the Joint Declaration is in Hong Kong's best interests, the bill makes the Joint Declaration the cornerstone of US policy toward Hong Kong. It requires an annual report from the secretary of state to Congress on the extent to which the Joint Declaration's promises have been implemented. It requires that capitalist Hong Kong should be treated separately from communist China for purposes such as immigration and trade quotas (as permitted by the Joint Declaration); Hong Kong could receive most favored nation (MFN) trade status even if China is denied such treatment.

The bill is based on the indisputable notion that Hong Kong cannot achieve the goals of the Joint Declaration without the active support of the international community and, particularly, the US - the leader of the free world and Hong Kong's most important business partner.

BOVE all, the bill seeks to smooth Hong Kong's transition to Chinese rule. It addresses the legal problems raised by the transfer of sovereignty. For example, as a State Department attorney told the Senate recently, current US law would not allow the US to grant Hong Kong benefits separately from China; the McConnell bill is necessary to reflect China's so-called "one country, two systems" policy. The bill also establishes a clear legal basis for US-Hong Kong relations after 1997 to replace the treaties with Britain, which all expire in 1997. The bill urges the president to sign new agreements on many subjects directly with Hong Kong (and it could be improved by authorizing him to do so.) Thus, the bill should instill confidence that the US intends to maintain "business as usual."

In advancing these interests, the bill avoids numerous pitfalls. By drawing heavily on the Joint Declaration, it follows China's stated policies for Hong Kong and, thus, should avoid unduly offending China. In fact, the bill recognizes the delicate balance necessary between our Hong Kong and China policies. Furthermore, the bill neither micro-manages policy nor handcuffs the president. Instead, it establishes broad principles on which to build our relationship, while allowing the president sufficient fle xibility to deal with future problems.

Far from acting confrontationally toward the administration, the bill builds on several welcome Bush initiatives - cutting red tape on high-tech exports to Hong Kong, a separate report on Hong Kong in the State Department's annual human rights reports, and increased educational exchanges. And the bill accomplishes what the executive cannot do alone: It establishes Hong Kong's status in US law.

The US consul-general in Hong Kong, Richard Williams, has declared that the bill's "broad purposes are clearly shared by the administration." Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon, testifying before the Senate, welcomed the bill as useful and, in some ways, necessary.

The administration also expressed some specific concerns, sensibly advocating a provision to allow the president to waive the bill's requirements when circumstances so demand. Thus it seems that President George Bush intends to join Congress in formulating and passing this worthwhile legislation. If so, both the American and Hong Kong peoples stand to benefit significantly.

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