US Must Convince China Of Its Concern for Hong Kong

Beijing's bright promises regarding '97 takeover are wearing thin

President Clinton says if he is reelected he will visit China next year to try to improve United States-China relations. That is a worthy cause. But he should also visit Hong Kong. That would be just as worthy a cause.

On July 1, 1997, British rule of Hong Kong comes to an end, and the territory becomes part of China. The 6 million people in Hong Kong - three quarters of them already refugees from Communist rule, or related to refugees - will once again answer to the Communist government in Beijing.

So will 30,000 US citizens living in Hong Kong, and 1,200 American companies doing business there.

China has promised Hong Kong that the freedoms it has enjoyed under the British will remain untampered with for 50 years. "One country, two systems" is the happy assurance Beijing has given a skeptical Hong Kong populace. But the promises are already wearing thin. Even before taking over, Beijing has said it will scrap the existing Hong Kong legislature. Already it is intimidating the Hong Kong press.

By visiting Hong Kong on his China trip, whether that comes before or after Beijing takes over the territory, Mr. Clinton could assure its people that the outside world is watching and would react strongly to the repression of this vibrant little city-state. What if Beijing demurs? Then surely that would cast further doubt on the sincerity of its promises to Hong Kong.

Some diplomats and businessmen will argue that trying to sweeten US relations with the Chinese colossus is more important than worrying about Hong Kong; indeed, that raising the Hong Kong issue might roil relations. But there are several reasons why this is an unworthy or short-sighted argument, and why it is important that the US convince China that it takes Hong Kong's future seriously.

First, the spirit of Hong Kong does not deserve to die. Hong Kong is built on the sweat and genius of Chinese who elected to flee Communism on the mainland and build a more promising future in Hong Kong. Some have now prepared havens in various parts of the world, but many must stay. The world should not forsake them.

Second, to Beijing, the reintegration of Hong Kong is merely a test-run for the reintegration of Taiwan. Some 25 years ago Chinese premier Chou En-lai, in an interview with me in Beijing, first propounded the "one country, two systems" theory. He offered it not in connection with Hong Kong, but as a solution to the Taiwan "problem." If China fails in Hong Kong, it will make accommodation with Taiwan infinitely more difficult.

Third, Chinese heavy-handedness in Hong Kong could touch off a brain-drain, shatter the confidence of foreign investors, and sink the economy. That is something that China should not want, for Hong Kong is the goose that lays a golden egg. With only 6 million people, Hong Kong has an economy about one-fifth as strong as that of China, with more than 1 billion people. More than half the foreign investment in China is funneled through Hong Kong.

Fourth, the emasculation of Hong Kong would outrage world opinion and renew China's isolation. Bosnia may be a complicated issue for many people to grasp. But an Arab tyrant's seizure of Kuwait, or communist repression of a noncommunist people in Hong Kong, are easily understood issues that quickly mobilize public opinion.

And finally, a crisis over Hong Kong would inevitably damage relations between China and the US, which both Clinton and the Chinese now seem anxious to repair.

While these arguments should be compelling to Beijing, they may not be. Public relations is not an art at which the Chinese Communists have excelled. They have often taken narrow political decisions to shore up their power at home with horrendous implications abroad.

The final British governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patten, recently came to the US to extol for journalists and businesspeople the vibrancy of Hong Kong's economy and the resilience of its people. It was a courageous effort that is his duty to perform. But Mr. Patten and China's leaders are not even on speaking terms. Beijing is busy chipping away at the modest political reforms Patten has introduced in the last days of British rule. Beijing is also bringing heavy pressure to bear on Hong Kong journalists who hitherto have enjoyed robust independence.

The early signs concerning China's takeover of Hong Kong are not encouraging.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was based in Hong Kong for six years as the paper's Far East correspondent.

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