Spreading Democracy Thin

Hong Kong voters go to the polls September 12 to elect a new Legislative Council. LegCo, as it's known, symbolizes the “high degree” of autonomy that Hong Kong was promised when it reverted Chinese rule in 1997; with a record 30 of 60 seats to be filled this year by universal suffrage (the rest are chosen by some 200,000 voters representing various professional associations, most of which use their seats to do Beijing's bidding), a fairly toothless institution might finally acquire some bite. For that very reason, the Chinese government has waged an ominous campaign of intimidation to sway Sunday's outcome, a campaign that appears to have included vandalism, arson, and death threats.

And what has the Bush administration had to say about this? Not a lot. Despite all its lofty rhetoric about promoting democracy, the White House has been strangely indifferent to developments in Hong Kong -- dangerously indifferent, given China's continued menacing of Taiwan and the way Washington's silence over Hong Kong might be interpreted, or misinterpreted, by Beijing. Conservatives, too, have been oddly mute, which is surprising when one recalls how critical they were in 1997 of what was, in fact, a far more assertive U.S. policy vis-à-vis Hong Kong. Of course, Bill Clinton was president back then.

The last seven years have not been happy ones for Hong Kong. Initially, the grievances were mainly related to a stagnant economy. Although Beijing did make good on its threat to undo a series of democratic reforms introduced by the British before they left, it generally honored the one-country, two-system formula that was the basis for Hong Kong's handover. And while Hong Kong residents have long been contemptuous of Tung Chee-hwa, the tycoon handpicked by China to serve as the city's chief executive, they were largely content to seethe in silence. It was Tung's belated and inept response to the SARS crisis, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong, that crystallized the public's dissatisfaction and gave new impetus to the movement for more democracy.

In July 2003, 500,000 people marched through the city center protesting a government-sponsored anti-subversion law, which was widely seen as an attempt by China and its allies in the city to provide legal cover for a crackdown on free speech. It was the biggest demonstration in Hong Kong since 1989, when one million people took to the streets to mourn the Tiananmen Square massacre, and it was quickly followed by several other large-scale protests. Although the Tung administration ultimately withdrew the legislation, the vivid display of civic activism shook the Chinese authorities and revived fears that Hong Kong was indeed a hotbed of subversion.

As a result, Beijing brought a halt to the “kinder, gentler” routine. Although the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution, does not set out a timetable for full democratization, it allows for direct election of the chief executive beginning in 2007 and direct election of the full legislature beginning in 2008, and full and immediate democracy is what an overwhelming majority of Hong Kong's 3.2 million registered voters now seem to want. In April, however, Chinese officials reaffirmed that they alone would decide the pace of Hong Kong's political development and that universal suffrage was out of the question for the foreseeable future.

The following month, four of Hong Kong's most popular talk-radio hosts abruptly quit within days of one another. All had been critical of China's stewardship of Hong Kong, and all cited intimidation as the reason for quitting. One of them, Albert Cheng, who had been the victim of a knife attack in 1998, claimed to have received a number of death threats and took them seriously enough to flee to Europe, where he has remained. His on-air partner, Raymond Wong, saw a restaurant he owns vandalized. A third host, Allen Lee, who in 1997 was considered a pro-Beijing stalwart, says a Chinese official advised him to watch his words and to keep in mind the welfare of his “very nice wife” and “very pretty” daughter.

When campaigning for the quadrennial LegCo elections began in earnest this summer and it became clear that pro-democracy parties stood to win a large majority of the 30 directly elected seats, Beijing and its allies ratcheted up the harassment. A report issued this week by Human Rights Watch details numerous instances of voter intimidation. One businessman, for instance, says he was advised to photograph his completed ballot in order to prove that he voted in a way favorable to China and to avoid any unpleasant consequences. Meanwhile, critics of Beijing have increasingly seen their patriotism impugned by Chinese officials and pro-China news outlets in the city.

And that's just the mild stuff. In June, the offices of Emily Lau, a particularly fierce critic of the Chinese regime, were damaged in an arson attack. The offices of another activist were smeared with excrement. Dirty tricks have factored prominently in the campaign, as well. In recent weeks, rumors have begun circulating about the marital fidelity and sexual orientation of several pro-democracy candidates. Last month, in what looks to be a classic honey trap, one prominent democrat, Alex Ho, was allegedly caught with a prostitute while on a visit to the Chinese city of Dongguan. He was arrested and sentenced, without trial, to six months of “reeducation through labor,” as it is euphemistically known. (It must be said that no concrete evidence of a dirty tricks campaign has been found, and it's entirely possible -- though obviously unlikely -- that these incidents are random and unrelated.)

Apart from a few op-eds, American conservatives here have largely ignored the worrying turn of events in Hong Kong. The tepid response stands in marked contrast to the vigilance they showed at the time of Hong Kong's handover. Then, it was nearly impossible to read The Weekly Standard, National Review, or the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal without coming across an article warning of dire happenings in Hong Kong and blasting the Clinton administration for not doing more to safeguard the city's liberties. On Capitol Hill, too, Newt Gingrich and his merry band of warriors were in full combat mode over Hong Kong and Clinton's alleged pusillanimity.

Back then, however, the fears were mostly of the what-if kind, and while the Clinton administration was certainly too soft on China, it showed plenty of backbone over Hong Kong. It repeatedly warned Beijing to honor its commitments to the city; three months before the change of sovereignty, Clinton himself cast aside diplomatic caution and met at the White House with Martin Lee, Hong Kong's leading democracy advocate and a perennial object of China's scorn. Now, seven years on, with Hong Kong's freedoms truly in jeopardy, those same conservative who excoriated Clinton are giving President Bush a pass. So much for principle before partisanship.

This is no trivial matter. As any AEI type will tell you, silence can be taken as acquiescence, and this is precisely how Beijing might interpret the Bush administration's silence over Hong Kong. Events in Hong Kong need to be viewed in the context of China's larger ambition, which is to reclaim Taiwan. Bush, under pressure from China, has twice sold out Taiwan in the past year: He publicly rebuked Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for seeking to gain formal independence for the island and later warned him against holding a referendum during last March's national elections on whether to boost military spending to guard against a potential Chinese attack. (Beijing saw the referendum as a prelude to a referendum on independence.)

The fact that the United States is bogged down in Iraq and in no position at the moment to put out fires in other places is no secret to Beijing, and while the Chinese are certainly not about to invade Taiwan, in a situation this combustive the slightest miscalculation can have nasty consequences. Washington's failure to speak out on behalf of Hong Kong sends a message that the United States is indeed distracted and that Beijing can act with relative impunity in its own backyard. George W. Bush is running for reelection as a democratic idealist who will never give tyrants reason to doubt American resolve. Tell it to the voters in Hong Kong.

Michael Steinberger is a Prospect senior correspondent.