China and People Power

When Britain gave up Hong Kong six years ago, it left behind just enough political kindling in the form of civil liberties and democracy to someday start a fire for freedom throughout China.

This month, the spark may have been lighted.

A half-million Hong Kong citizens protested on July 1 against a proposed bill that would bring communist-style suppression of dissent to the territory. Another protest was held on July 9 and then a third Sunday.

Many in the crowds sang "We Shall Overcome," first in Cantonese, then in English, a bilingualism that reflects Hong Kong's historic straddle between East and West.

As they did the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, China's autocratic rulers are now trying to douse this latest display of people power before it spreads to the 1.2 billion Chinese workers and peasants - perhaps even to Tibet - or further pushes the people of Taiwan away from thoughts of eventual reunification with the mainland.

These marches for freedom have forced Hong Kong's already-unpopular chief executive, Tung Che Hwa, into political retreat. He first tried to water down the proposed security law; then he had to shelve it.

Most of all, he's lost the respect of people who thought he would keep China's promise that it would not meddle in Hong Kong's affairs for 50 years, under an arrangement called "one country, two systems."

Under its mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, Hong Kong was obligated to pass an internal-security law. But Mr. Tung's version went too far and was too vague. Everyone from journalists to religious groups would be in potential jeopardy, as they are in the rest of China, if the bill had passed.

Tung is one of those Asian leaders who has said Western-style rights, freedom of expression, and democracy are not suited to the more conformist societies of the Far East. But the Chinese in Hong Kong have now loudly denounced that dubious idea.

And Hong Kong's message for the new leader of China's Communist Party, Hu Jintao, is also clear: To maintain stability and a capitalist market, the Chinese need more freedom. These protests should put some wind behind reported moves in Beijing to allow experiments in local democracy (and possibly private property rights). After admitting it had covered up the SARS outbreak, the party has lost the legitimacy to maintain the old lawless authoritarianism.

To show he is a new kind of leader who's closer to the people, Mr. Hu should refrain from just waiting out this dissent in Hong Kong in order to ram a draconian security bill into law.

Let Hong Kong be Hong Kong. It can then be a model for the rest of China.

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