HONG KONG-Today Hong Kong's top official, Chief Executive C. H. Tung, is to meet with President Clinton in Washington as part of a trip meant to reassure the American leadership and business community that Hong Kong's transfer of sovereignty to China has been uneventful, that it is "business as usual" and that there has been "no change" since July 1.
Hong Kong people know better. No one would seriously assert that it was "business as usual" in Washington if a U.S. president abolished an elected Congress, appointed cronies and defeated candidates to a rump body and then manipulated electoral laws to ensure that the next time there are elections his appointees are returned to office.
That is the situation now in Hong Kong. The new election law C. H. Tung introduced in August was designed by the Preparatory Committee, the same China-appointed body that abolished the legislature elected by more than 1 million people in 1995, and the same body designed to guarantee that pro-democracy candidates' perennially large share of the popular vote will translate into a very small number of seats.
On the surface, Hong Kong may appear to be much the same. Although harsh new "national security" restrictions have been put in place, to date no Hong Kong citizen has been imprisoned for peaceful demonstrations, and reporters continue to report freely.
To Tung's credit, he has not taken advantage of these new laws passed by the appointed legislature at China's behest. Still, they exist to restrict civil liberties we have always enjoyed -- and there are no guarantees that the appointed legislature will not be prevailed upon to rubber-stamp other new laws to restrict freedoms further.
Despite the Sino-British Joint Declaration's guarantee of the rule of law and "a high degree of autonomy," Hong Kong is slowly being molded into a society in which the public has no effective voice in government and the rule of law is eroded by the court's inability to interpret our constitution. Tung has initiated a pattern of changes that can best be described as the "Singaporisation" of Hong Kong.
He regularly expresses admiration for Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his so-called "Asian values," in which democracy and freedom are subjugated to government control.
In Singapore, court challenges to the government invariably fail, and libel laws are used to bankrupt opposition politicians. Singapore has national elections but a peculiar democracy -- only one member of an opposition party won in the last election.
Tung's new election laws are nothing less than a great leap backward for democracy in Hong Kong. The franchise in 30 of the legislature's 60 seats will be slashed from 2.7 million to 180,000, and "corporate voting" -- one company, one vote -- will be reinstated. I recently pointed out to Tung that under his electoral proposals, he was disenfranchising himself and all of his senior advisers.
And even in the 20 seats up for democratic election, he is initiating a proportional representation system designed to cut democratic representation further -- one that has been shown to confuse voters and cause corruption in Taiwan and Japan. In August Chief Executive Tung shocked Hong Kong by calling for a watering down of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- which sets out basic freedoms for all citizens worldwide -- on the basis that it was imposed by the West and does not reflect the views of developing countries.
"I'm sympathetic to this argument, I really am," he said. But Hong Kong people are not sympathetic to Tung's use of Asian values to justify a rollback of our bill of rights and to install electoral laws that tilt the playing field against those whom Hong Kong people choose in free elections.
Like Chinese leaders and Lee Kuan Yew, Tung argues that democracy and civil liberties are Western. But Asians are no less capable of selecting their leaders through popular elections than anyone else.
Just ask the Taiwanese, South Koreans or Filipinos. Instead of being a disruptive force, elections and democratic reform have stabilized Hong Kong and provided a channel for the public to articulate concerns throughout the critical transition period. It is no accident that talk of Asian values arises only in the context of Asian leaders' attempting to justify authoritarian rule or seeking to deflect criticism of a domestic human rights situation.
Certainly there are cultural differences between Asia and the West. But there is no difference whatever when it comes to basic human rights and elections. Like Americans, Hong Kong's people cherish democracy, the rule of law, press freedom and the institutions of civil society. Indeed, the desire for freedom is why so many of us -- or our parents -- fled mainland China in the first place. President Clinton has made the implementation of the Joint Declaration's promise of an elected legislature a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Hong Kong.
Today he should ask Tung to reconcile his pledge of "a more democratic form of government" after the hand-over with the bogus electoral arrangements now being locked in place.
Tung should know that he can only be taken as seriously as the electoral arrangements he sets up. The president and other elected leaders should make clear to Tung that these arrangements are unacceptable and have no place in a free society.
Tung, a businessman, needs to be reminded that recent history teaches that in order to preserve economic success and the rule of law, there must be genuine elections to guarantee that our government is accountable to the people.
Hong Kong's people won limited democracy in our decade-long struggle with the British colonial government. As elected leaders we are committed to continuing this struggle in Hong Kong, now part of China. Hong Kong people want democracy.
They have participated in elections, seen democracy work for them -- and will fight to get it back.
The writer is chairman of what was Hong Kong's largest elective party when China, taking back Hong Kong from Britain, ousted it in July.