Why Hong Kong is worth watching

Steve Kelman reports on the latest troubles in Hong Kong, and the larger concerns they could signal.

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

Last week, while the world's attention was focused on violence and human rights issues in Ukraine, I was in Hong Kong to give some lectures for the public administration program at the City University of Hong Kong. During the week I was there, increasing tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China were very much in the news, culminating in a Sunday demonstration sponsored by the Hong Kong Journalists Association protesting threats to press freedom from China.

Then, on Monday night Hong Kong time, just after I returned to the United States, these problems dramatically escalated after a gangland-style knife attack on the recently deposed editor of Hong Kong's leading independent newspaper, which left the journalist in critical condition. The story was quickly taken up on The New York Times website. Because of Hong Kong's very longstanding freedoms that now seem to be in question -- unlike Ukraine, Hong Kong has a long tradition of political freedom and the rule of law -- and because of what it says about how China is behaving in the world, these developments should worry people in the West, even though Hong Kong is a small and faraway place.

A little background is in order. In 1997, Great Britain handed control of Hong Kong to China. For China, this meant overcoming a potent symbol of foreign control on Chinese soil. Many Hong Kong residents also felt happy to become part of China, but there were also great concerns because of Hong Kong's freewheeling culture, rule of law, lack of corruption and large numbers of refugees from communism -- all of which made many people nervous about the handover. To allay these fears, China promised Hong Kong that it could for 50 years live under a policy of "one country, two systems," where it was a Special Administrative District that got to keep its own laws and practices.

Today, however, one country, two systems seems under threat. Culturally, there has been a huge influx of mainland tourists coming mostly to shop at huge luxury stores or buy milk powder or other food products where they doubt the safety of Chinese brands. Hong Kong now receives about 70 million mainland tourists a year, in a city of 7 million, and they have annoyed many with poor manners and the crowding of streets and subways their presence has produced. Politically, the Chinese government has stated that, though the city's chief executive will for the first time be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, the mainland reserves the right to prohibit candidates they dislike from running. And there have been increasing worries about threats to press freedom: the editor of the leading independent Chinese-language newspaper was recently fired and replaced by a pliant Malaysian Chinese, and the editor of Hong Kong's English-language paper the South China Morning Post was replaced by a mainlander. Additionally, a popular radio commentator often critical of the mainland was fired.

Last year there were two armed assaults on independent editors and owners. And now we have this latest, and most serious, attack on the former editor by two men who attacked him from a motorcycle and sped away.

This is not just about Hong Kong. China has made similar "one country, two systems" promises to Taiwan, which now are likely to be greeted with even-greater skepticism. Those worried about China bullying its neighbors are likely to become more worried. And this is not good for constructive relations with the United States either. Time for a Chinese reset?

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