Hong Kong and Liberty

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Hong Kong cries for liberty, and Canada should answer

Colin Robertson The Globe and Mail Tuesday, Oct. 14 2014

The demonstrations in Hong Kong over representative government are a reminder that Hong Kong continues to be, in the oft-recalled words of novelist Han Suyin, a “borrowed place on borrowed time.”

Canada has significant interests in Hong Kong. It is our best entryway into Asia, especially China. For more than a century Hong Kong – its Chinese translation is “fragrant harbour” – has been the entrepôt and Asian headquarters for Canadian business. An estimated 300,000 Canadians, many of them Hong Kong-born, live and work in the Special Administrative Region.

While our economic links are important, Canadian leaders have a duty to tell the Chinese leaders that we value not just economic liberties but political ones as well.

Two dimensions of the Hong Kong demonstrations to secure the right to choose their next chief executive stand out.

First, there is the crisis of legitimacy around the current Hong Kong government and ITS future governance.

The current arrangements are based on the Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreed in 1984 by Deng Xiaoping with Margaret Thatcher, that guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy – “one country, two systems”– and basic liberties for 50 years. The Basic Law of 1990 defined the nuts and bolts of those liberties, including the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a free press.

The last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, who held the post from 1992 until the handover in 1997, made valiant efforts to improve those liberties. The now-Lord Patten faced open opposition from Beijing (including unflattering epithets like “a sinner of the millennium”); fragging from the powerful business interests in Hong Kong and in London; and criticism from those within the British Foreign Office who put the China relationship ahead of any obligation to Hong Kong.

By his own admission, Lord Patten mostly failed. Hong Kong became the only example of a decolonization deliberately accompanied by less democracy and weaker protection of civil liberties. “This,” writes Lord Patten in his splendid memoir East and West, “was a cause for profound regret.”

Chinese rule has been better than its critics feared. The city is cleaner (SARS changed the hawking habit), greener (a generational shift), and richer (as a bolt-hole for mainland money) with property values amongst the highest in the world.

Until now, the liberties negotiated for Hong Kong have been mostly respected by China. Efforts in recent years to define subversion and include China-approved curriculum in schools were withdrawn after public protest. But now, as Lord Patten observes, Iran appears to be the “democratic model” on which China will run Hong Kong.

The second dimension to the demonstrations is the challenge to China.

China’s Communist leadership traditionally viewed Hong Kong as a nest of spies and troublemakers, and what some called “a pimple on the ass of China.” Until the handover, the British colony was a constant reminder of the hundred years of humiliation that China suffered after the Opium Wars (from 1839-42 and from 1856-60).

For China’s President Xi Jinping, the recent student demonstrations are an unhelpful diversion from his main objectives: underlining his primacy as China’s paramount leader and, at the same time, asserting China’s place as a global great power. Mr. Xi also contends with a slowing economy and debilitating environmental degradation on the mainland.

Mr. Xi has consolidated his authority through an anti-corruption campaign against the “flies and tigers” (who, not coincidentally, are also potential political rivals) and a firm hand with dissidents, especially amongst China’s minorities. As some Chinese say, Mr. Xi talks like Mr. Deng but hits like Mao.

The Chinese government would prefer that the West butt out of Hong Kong affairs, arguing that it is its internal affair. We should focus instead on getting rich together, argued China’s new ambassador to Canada, Luo Zhaohui, in a recent speech.

Ambassador Luo called for improving bilateral energy corridors and reiterated his predecessor’s suggestion of a Canada-China free trade pact. In an oblique reference to the Hong Kong situation, he observed that “for our deepening economic reform, stability is a must.”

Improving Canada-China economic collaboration is important and advancing economic ties are important components of the upcoming China mission of the premiers and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit around November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Beijing.

But neither the premiers nor the Prime Minister should shy away from discussing with Chinese leadership the linkage between economic and political liberties. The economic miracle that is Hong Kong – Milton Friedman described it as the living demonstration of “market economics” – depends on both economic and political liberties.

Liberty is our response to living in a world of uncertainty. We need to remind ourselves – and those who do not share our beliefs – the value of liberty. Do it quietly and politely, but do it. Leave stridency and megaphones to the students but be clear that we share their belief in liberty.

The elementary desire for freedom is the force driving all liberties, old and new. And, once again, liberty needs champions.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson served as Canadian Consul in Hong Kong. Vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, he is a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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