When I lived in Hong Kong for six years, it was a British colony under the then ominous shadow of a threatening mainland China.
Many of Hong Kong's Chinese people were refugees from Chinese communism. Their industry and commercial genius, under the British penchant for law and order, had made Hong Kong a thriving oasis of free enterprise and prosperity.
Nonetheless, China's influence loomed large, as when the Cultural Revolution on the mainland spilled over the border into Hong Kong. There were bombs in the streets, and calls to Hong Kong's Chinese policemen to kill their British officers, and a cutoff of mainland water, which reduced Hong Kong to a few hours' use every fourth day.
A tiny garrison of Gurkhas and British soldiers offered no defense for Hong Kong, and as one British commander told me: "They [the regime in Beijing] can take it any time they want with a phone call."
Thus, years later, when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, at a late-night meeting with my then-boss, Secretary of State George Shultz, broke the news that Britain would give up Hong Kong and return it to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, my heart took a jolt, but I knew that it was inevitable.
In the years since, it hasn't gone too badly for Hong Kong, which China runs as a "special administrative region." Though the British Union Jack has gone, and the red communist flag of China flies over it, China has permitted Hong Kong a fair degree of latitude, not wanting to kill the economic goose on its rim that lays a golden egg. Indeed, one of the ironies of China's acquisition of Hong Kong at the time was the lingering fear among some party hard-liners in Beijing that the economic and social freedoms of little Hong Kong might prove infectious and disruptive in vast China once they were all under the same flag.
Until now, that hasn't happened because China itself, confronted by communism's disastrous economic impact, has been gradually moving down the road of economic reform, diluting its socialism to permit its people an element of free enterprise. But this road inevitably leads to demands for parallel political freedom; and, this, the Chinese regime has been reluctant to grant.
Such is the framework for China's current confrontation with Hong Kong. China had promised to rule Hong Kong on a "one country, two systems" basis, but recently introduced new treason and antisubversion legislation that threatened civil liberties enjoyed by Hong Kong since British rule. China's point man in Hong Kong, Tung Che Hwa, was stunned by the strength of reaction. On July 1, half a million Hong Kong Chinese demonstrated in protest. Last week, and again on Sunday, smaller, but nonetheless significant, demonstrations demanded free elections and the ouster of the Chinese governor. The proposed new law has been withdrawn for modification.
Thus Beijing's old concerns about the liberalizing influence of Hong Kong on China have been renewed, and Beijing may be propelled earlier than it desired toward resolution of the anachronism it has created in China proper. This is the contradiction of moving its economy in a free-enterprise direction while continuing to use a communist facade to repress political freedom.
History shows that, ultimately, such a contradiction is impossible to continue. Offer people economic freedom, and they then demand a political voice in how their system is run. China had hoped to stave off such inevitability, but the impassioned defense of liberty in Hong Kong, and the demand for democratic reforms may stimulate similar demands elsewhere in China, even though the Beijing regime has tried to stifle media coverage of the Hong Kong unrest.
Backing down on the restrictive new Hong Kong legislation is a significant loss of face for Mr. Tung. Beijing may choose to dislodge him. But the issues remain: Will China get tougher, or be more conciliatory, with Hong Kong? What ramifications will this have for the progress of democracy in China?
The US State Department has pronounced negatively on the proposed Hong Kong legislation, and the White House is watching and has warned of "consequences" for its relationship with new Chinese President Hu Jintao. How China nurtures its "one country, two systems" relationship with Hong Kong will also have an important bearing on any rapprochement between Taiwan and Beijing.
The stakes are higher than in Hong Kong alone. The world waits and watches.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.