On July 1 huge crowds surged throughout downtown Hong Kong for the annual pro-democracy march marking the anniversary of the territory's 1997 return to communist Chinese rule. The procession, estimated by organizers at 500,000, stretched for miles and took hours to complete. As night fell, some marchers settled in for an overnight protest at the chief executive's office. Hong Kong police began clearing the scene during the night, arresting hundreds.
Tuesday's march was fueled by the heady success of an unofficial multi-day referendum on democracy that concluded the previous Sunday. That exercise drew an unexpectedly high turn out -- more than a fifth of the country's electorate -- with the overwhelming majority endorsing democratic election of the chief executive. Currently, Hong Kong's chief executive is selected by Beijing and rubber-stamped by a 1,200-member committee of mostly pro-Beijing Hong Kongers.
Seventeen years after its return to communist Chinese rule, the battle over democracy in Hong Kong has once again heated up. Unfortunately, the U.S. -- which in 1997 promised to defend Hong Kong's civil liberties and support democracy -- is so far pursuing business as usual with Beijing, announcing the next meeting of a high level U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing scheduled for July 9-10. A State Department spokeswoman's remarks on July 1 suggested that the administration views the massive protests as unremarkable.
China of course has sovereignty over Hong Kong; however, the 1984 treaty Deng Xiaoping signed with Margaret Thatcher authorizing the handover of the British colony to Chinese rule committed Beijing to preserving its capitalist system, respecting judicial independence and pursuing democracy as "the ultimate goal." It's clear now how wishful the world was about Beijing's intentions. Since the handover, Beijing has interfered more overtly, overshadowing its hand-picked chief executives, overruling the high court and making the arrangement Deng called "one country, two systems" an increasingly "unsustainable illusion."
Hong Kongers do enjoy far greater civil liberties under Chinese rule than their compatriots on the mainland, where this week's march and last week's referendum could not have taken place. Beijing, for example, recently imprisoned the leaders of the New Citizens Movement for small, peaceful demonstrations.
While hundreds of thousands gathered in Hong Kong to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in mainland China, activists and dissidents were harassed, detained and arrested. One of the most prominent, the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, was arrested after he participated in a May 3 discussion of the 1989 crackdown at a private home. That Hong Kong's citizens have more freedom to lose than their compatriots on the mainland is all the more reason to act now and push forward toward complete democracy.
Beijing's policies on the mainland and in Hong Kong are only strengthening the democracy movement. A Hong Kong Transition Project survey describes dissatisfaction with the PRC governance of China as "extreme" among Hong Kong citizens under 30. Participation in the July 1 protest march and June referendum was driven up by Beijing's high-handed pronouncements in a June 10 white paper, in which Beijing archly reminded Hong Kong of its subordination to the central government and impugned the territory's tradition of judicial independence. "Loving the country," the paper said, "is the basic political requirement" for judges and other civil servants.
Beijing's equation of democracy and the rule of law with treason has led to a growing distrust of the mainland and an emerging, distinct Hong Kong "identity," especially among the young. Hong Kong government statistics (PDF) put one third of the population at under the age of 24 and nearly one half of the population at under 35. For the most part, they don't share the experience of their parents and grandparents who fled the mainland for Hong Kong. Nor do many of the youthful members of the democracy movement agree with older, establishment politicians who try to advance democracy within the contorted, anti-democratic rules Beijing laid down for constituting the legislature and choosing the chief executive.
Divisions within the pro-democracy camp benefit Beijing, which fans the idea that the most ambitious goals for democracy in Hong Kong are "radical." The U.S. and other democracies must not go along with this misleading characterization. "The authorities in Beijing have the power and authority to determine whether Hong Kong will achieve democracy at a particular point in time," writes the democracy scholar Larry Diamond, "but they do not have the right to redefine what democracy is."
After Great Britain left Hong Kong, the United States became the unofficial guardian of Hong Kong's freedoms. "It's a role we cannot avoid," an American official told the New York Times in 1997. "Since we are who we are, and we have so much business here, we will end up by being the first to cry foul."
That sentiment had a familiar echo in President Obama's speech to the Australian parliament in which he made support for freedom and democracy central to U.S. policy in Asia. "That's what we stand for. That's who we are." Chinese leaders won't tolerate progress toward democracy in Hong Kong -- or on the mainland -- unless there is a cost for quashing it. Instead of proceeding with business as usual with China, the Obama administration and Congress should reiterate America's support for democracy in Hong Kong, and then act on it.