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Hong Kong's Reversion:
There's Always Two Sides to the Story

Everybody is asking one question about Hong Kong's impending reversion to China: to what extent will China crack down on civil liberties? A recent article in Foreign Affairs (May/June 1997) argued that China would not crack down, whereas Newsweek spent an entire commemorative issue strongly implying doom and destruction.

But what both sides of this discussion miss is why China would (or would not) stifle the liberties of this economic jewel, and the answer to this question is indispensable for predicting China's actions. Let us turn back the clock, just a little, to 1989, the year Communism "fell."

The breakup of the Soviet Union was an amazing breakthrough in human history, a triumph of the spirit of freedom over the forces of tyranny, and a total mess. Multiple regions, languages and ethnic tensions which had been held together by tanks were suddenly pried apart, sometimes lubricated with blood. The economy collapsed, crime soared and there was serious doubt as to whether the new government could hold together.

About the same time, China's citizens attempted a little glasnost of their own, but China reacted differently -- it ran them over with tanks in Tianenmen Square. Although China was roundly criticized the world over for its horrible display of violence and oppression, its leaders were adamant about the rightness of their reasons. Jiang (already presumably in charge, since Deng Xiaoping was so old even Anna Nicole Smith wouldn't marry him) decided that in order to hold together the Chinese empire, which encompassed Tibet and various western regions with Muslim populations and other disputed territories, it was worth taking out a few students. After all, Jiang was responsible for the lives of over one billion people and he did not want to go down in history as the man who lost China. In the next few years, the crackdowns on freedom continued, as the concomitant Soviet breakup brought nothing but instability, and the Chinese leadership decided they would prefer not to pursue that route.

Was Jiang right in a moral sense? It's easy for us to say absolutely not, since killing college kids merely because they're noisy is a fairly clear-cut moral wrong, despite what you thought about the last Alpha Beta party near your house. But it is easy to understand why Jiang felt he had to do it. He honestly believed that if the Chinese government was overthrown, or even seriously weakened, if those students managed to persuade enough people to join them, it would destroy the livelihoods, and perhaps lives, of over a billion people. Jiang, like Deng before him, is not a hot-blooded ideologue like Mao Zedong -- he is cold, calculating, and a big fan of what used to be called "realpolitik."

With this mindset of the Chinese leadership in mind, we can now approach The Question: will China crack down after the reversion? Practical applicability says no. Hong Kong has numerous media services, Internet connections, and more telephones and fax machines than Bill Gates' boardroom, so it would be difficult to black out Hong Kong overnight. In addition, China badly needs a boost to go from perpetual-growth 2nd world country to a 1st world, technologically advanced, manufacturing giant. So as long as Hong Kong isn't seen as "corrupting the mainland" by the Chinese leadership, Jiang will most likely leave Hong Kong as it is, the new economic pearl of China.

The danger will not come if Hong Kongers start speaking out against China, but only if the mainlander Chinese can hear them. Jiang doesn't fear errant criticism; he hears it all the time, from people and nations the world over. He fears bigger things, like a collapse of empire. If Hong Kong begins to appeal to Chinese to be "more like Hong Kong," a state of being that would seriously weaken the Jiang regime, expect a crackdown on telecommunications faster than Bart Simpson can find trouble. But if Hong Kong goes about its business of business, as the quiet money-maker has been doing for decades, China will allow it to produce its golden eggs unmolested. And Hong Kong shows every sign of being the dutiful worker bee: after all, they got to where they are under a British government that didn't particularly care much about democracy either.

Whether China will repress Hong Kong, of course, is probably a mystery even in Tianenmen. But Hong Kong would be wise to keep their fax machines turned on, and their sensitivity to the motives of the Chinese leadership tuned in.

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