THE Legislative Council in Hong Kong took a significant step on June 30 to strengthen democracy in the waning days of British rule. It approved a series of electoral reforms - which the Chinese government immediately stated it would dismantle once it takes over on July 1, 1997. This potential confrontation has implications for the United States as well as for China and the British colony.
The new measure has two significant provisions. It abolishes appointed seats in the Legislative Council and it increases from 120,000 to 2.5 million those who could vote indirectly for 30 seats allotted to functional constituencies of Hong Kong. Of the remaining 30 members, 20 will be directly elected and 10 will be chosen by an electoral committee.
Under the British-Chinese Joint Declaration of 1984 and the subsequent Basic Law of 1990, China agreed that Hong Kong would be autonomous except in defense and foreign affairs. Its economy, finance, and judicial and social systems would remain for 50 years. Human rights would be protected. As the two nations begin discussing details, however, it is clear that China expects the British to transfer, without change, the colonial political structure. Beijing has been displeased with British governor Christopher Patten's efforts to bring democratic reforms. Beijing believes that Hong Kong can continue as an economic powerhouse without political freedoms that could infect the mainland.
Although the US is not a party to the Anglo-Chinese agreements and has not meddled in the differences, US interests in Hong Kong are substantial - some $7 billion in investments and $18 billion in two-way trade. Over 900 US firms have offices there. Hong Kong is, further, the gateway for trade to China; 50 percent of Chinese trade passes through the colony.
Washington manifested its official interest in Hong Kong's future in the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. The law's purpose is to continue the territory's separate status after its transfer to China so that congressional actions that might apply to China will not automatically apply to Hong Kong. The act covers bilateral ties, consular relations, immigration privileges, and rights to the transfer of technology. The act has two declarations relevant to current reforms: Democratization is ``a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy''; and human rights on Hong Kong are ``of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests.''
Changes could take place in Beijing that would make democracy in Hong Kong more acceptable. But this seems unlikely. If not, China's takeover could be followed by a reversal of reforms and a crackdown on pro-democracy elements. The fate of the free Hong Kong press and US news organizations long established in the territory would be uncertain. An adverse US reaction may then be inescapable. Arguments between trade and human rights that marked the recent debate on China's most-favored-nation status could be repeated.
A debate on Hong Kong, however, would be different. The issue wouldn't be whether trade did or did not encourage democracy. It would be whether the US should stand aside while a working democratic system was weakened or destroyed.
Opinion in Hong Kong is by no means united. Many have invested heavily in China and want Beijing accommodated. Even some who advocate democratic reforms wish to avoid unnecessary provocation.
If this issue with China is to be well managed, thinking must begin on the Asian transition. The US may not be a participant in the diplomacy. But with major interests in the outcome, Washington cannot be indifferent to a unique test of the link between investor confidence, trade, and democracy.