Freedom's Ring Around China

Beijing's leaders were rattled last July when a half-million people took to the streets in Hong Kong. The protests forced officials to shelve a proposed security law for the territory. It was the biggest challenge to Communist rule in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

This week, the party shot back - and shot back strongly - by reneging on an agreement to let Hong Kong largely run itself. It told the territory's freedom-loving citizens that any attempt to choose their own local leader or introduce universal suffrage - as they would have been able to do in 2008 under the territory's charter - could be nixed by Beijing.

China had promised, after taking over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, to allow the territory to remain autonomous for 50 years under a "one country, two systems" formula. By amending Hong Kong's Basic Law through fiat, the party has revealed its red colors. "A locality has no fixed power," said Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary general of the standing committee of China's Congress. "All powers of the locality derive from the authorization of the central authorities."

This brazen strike on Hong Kong's rights also reveals that China must be feeling pretty lonely and scared in a region that's seen a blossoming of democracy over the past two decades.

In addition to defiance in Hong Kong, China had to endure the reelection last month of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who's pulled the island nation further from the mainland's orbit. Even though that election was close and messy, Beijing saw once again that it can't control people's political aspirations.

China must have also watched with dismay as Asia's third most populous nation, Indonesia, held its second parliamentary elections since casting off a dictatorship six years ago. The Philippines will hold its third presidential vote next month since restoring democracy in 1986. Malaysia just had a healthy election, while South Korea, which returned to democracy in 1987, just saw an elected president impeached.

Even military-run Burma (Myanmar), one of China's closest allies, plans a constitutional convention May 17 under a "road map to democracy" (although this small step will probably be more eyewash than eye-opener).

While the Chinese people enjoy many economic liberties, and some attempts at local elections, China is becoming encircled by democracies, from Japan to Thailand to India.

In Hong Kong, local elections last November saw pro-Beijing parties lose ground. The same may happen in crucial Legislative Council elections in September. On Sunday, another big protest is planned against China's hijacking of Hong Kong's Constitution.

The more Beijing resists the inevitable, the more encircled it will be.

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