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Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong display placards reading "Break a promise" and "Shameful" during a session Monday about China's move to restrict candidates in elections in the territory.

Hong Kong's pearl of great price

Long known for its freedoms, Hong Kong faces a plan by China to restrict democracy by limiting candidates in the territory's elections. At the same time, China plans more freedom for its consumers and investors. The Communist Party sits on a contradiction.

Ever since 1841, when Hong Kong became an open port for trade to the world, this “pearl of the Orient” has anchored its identity on freedom of choice. Even after 1997, when China took control of the territory from Britain, the spirit of freedom has prevailed.

On Sunday, however, China proposed to deny Hong Kong a key part of its identity. The Communist Party in Beijing now wants to decide which candidates can run for the territory’s chief executive in a 2017 election.

If the idea is approved by Hong Kong’s 70-member Legislative Council, the city could face an Iran-style system of rigged elections. Yes, everyone will be able to vote. But a committee favorable to Beijing would select the candidates. One Chinese official said voters should not be “confused” with too many choices in candidates.

The winner of such elections would most likely be loyal not only to the party but reflect the mainland’s value of limited rights under emperor-like rule. Hong Kong’s judiciary, too, could lose much of its independence.

China has steadily eroded the freedoms in Hong Kong since 1997. Now the city’s people must make a difficult decision over the issue of keeping open democracy. Will they support protests planned in coming days and weeks?

Hong Kong’s decision is being watched closely by Taiwan, which is concerned that China’s attempts to control the island nation will include a demand for subservience to Beijing and less democracy.

China’s move against Hong Kong comes as the party itself plans to give Chinese consumers more freedom. Since 2013, President Xi Jinping has consolidated political power but also moved to diminish the dominant state-run enterprises in order to spur growth. He plans to give Chinese more choices on where to invest and what to buy.

In other words, China is becoming more like the old Hong Kong of openness, at least in its economy. The party’s long-held belief that it could restrict political freedom while allowing commercial freedom may be breaking apart. Freedom is freedom, whether at a store or in a voting booth. Both reflect the value of individual preference, or the view that power resides with the individual and not the state.

The people of Hong Kong should be free to give power to Beijing as long as they can take it back. In its agreement with Britain for the handover, China promised to keep a policy of “one country, two systems,” or allowing Hong Kong to be self-governed, for 50 years. That commitment should not be broken. Even more, Beijing must see that the prevailing winds of choice in both politics and the economy are blowing from Hong Kong to China.

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