Why America Must Stand Up for Hong Kong's Democracy Movement

"The human rights of the people of Hong Kong are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong."

Loath to become the world’s policeman, the Obama administration has turned instead into its fireman. Hither and thither, the administration runs to different corners of the world trying to put out fires—today Central America, tomorrow Jerusalem, next week Syria. Such an approach may rack up air miles for the Secretary of State, but clearly, it’s no substitute for a preventive blueprint that safeguards our national interest.

As it happens, one part of the world experiencing a mini–flare up—Hong Kong—affords us an opportunity to pursue a long-term strategy pertaining to a much larger actor: China. Our foreign-policy challenges would ease considerably if China became a normal, status-quo country with elections, free markets and checks and balances that its leaders could use to manage internal tensions.

Allowing the 7.1 million people of Hong Kong to practice real democracy would let the authorities in Beijing see up close that there’s nothing to fear from a sovereign people. Over time, familiarity with democratic practices in this one Chinese city would help China’s leaders acquire for themselves the frame of mind needed to begin to introduce universal suffrage on the mainland itself.

This is what we see with economic development. China’s experiment with capitalism and free markets since the death of Mao in 1979 has been vastly helped by the fact that its businessmen are able to learn best business practices from Hong Kong, much to the benefit of 1.3 billion Chinese on the mainland. Political culture, like business culture, can be learned through observation and close proximity.

Unfortunately, China has shown itself in no mood to countenance the legitimate demands of the people of Hong Kong to be allowed to practice democracy in electing their Chief Executive and their miniparliament, the Legislative Council. Its response to a referendum last month, which called for universal suffrage, was to denounce it as illegal, even as some 800,000 of the city’s registered voters voted for democracy. And when half a million marched on July 1 to demand democracy, China had 500 of them and five of the protest’s leaders arrested. Most ludicrously, the leaders were clapped into prison for “walking too slowly.”

This makes a mockery of the pillars of Hong Kong’s success story: the rule of law and due process. As with China’s ham-fisted attempts to silence independent media outlets over the past few years, China is now putting at risk not just its own political evolution but Hong Kong’s economic success.

The Success of a Barren Rock

Journalists often write that Britain “returned” sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997 after 151 years of colonial rule. In fact, that misstates the history. There was no “there, there” in Hong Kong when Britain grabbed the area at the mouth of the Pearl River in the Opium War of 1839-42. The city that eventually was built around this deep natural harbor became an economic miracle, the fortuitous combination of three factors: British rule of law and sense of fair play, the industry of the Chinese who populated the area and the craftiness of colonial administrators sent by London who remained steadfastly free-market, even when Britain turned socialist after World War II.

The Index of Economic Freedom published each year by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal has always identified Hong Kong the world’s freest economy. Anyone who has visited this capitalist theme park would know why. The city levies almost no trade tariffs, is completely open to international trade and has a small, efficient government, a professional, honest civil service and a light regulatory touch. It is easy to see why Hong Kong’s GDP per capita of $36,796 is one of the highest in the world and four times higher than the GDP per capita of the country to which the city has belonged since 1997—China. The border between Hong Kong and communist China served for many years as a stark reminder of the laws of economics: on one side lay impoverished, oppressed China and on the other, enlightened, prosperous Hong Kong.

On July 1, 1997, London handed sovereignty of the territory to China. Britain could hold on to Hong Kong no longer, because while China had ceded the island in perpetuity in the nineteenth century, the adjacent Kowloon peninsula had only been leased for ninety-nine years on 1898, and Hong Kong could not be split. The Chinese leader who took over China in 1979, Deng Xiaoping, clearly was cut from a different cloth from the man he replaced, Mao Zedong, as he wasted little time introducing some free-market reforms. Deng was able to convince Margaret Thatcher, the then-prime minister of the UK, to turn over Hong Kong in 1997, promising that he would implement a “One Country, Two Systems” policy.

In essence, this meant that while China’s 1.3 billion people would continue to have their most basic freedoms restricted under rule by the Chinese Communist Party, Beijing pledged that Hong Kong would continue to enjoy most of the same rights as the world’s liberal democracies. Specifically, in the Joint Declaration signed by both China and the UK, a binding international treaty filed at the United Nations, Beijing promised that,