By L. Gordon Crovitz
The wall Street Journal
Information has been the main currency of Hong Kong since colonial days, when word reached mainland Chinese that if they escaped to “touch base” in Hong Kong, they would get refuge under British rule. Hong Kong became Asia’s first global city thanks to hardworking immigrants who made the most of their open trade, English legal system and free speech.
Hong Kong protesters are driven by hope that a leader selected by Hong Kong voters—as Beijing promised for 2017 before it reneged—can protect their way of life. But as the Communist Party narrows freedoms on the mainland, Deng Xiaoping ’s “one country, two systems” formulation for the 1997 handover entails a widening gap between life in Hong Kong and the rest of China. Without a government to represent them, Hong Kong people had no better choice than to take to the streets.
Mainland China is in an era of brutal suppression. Beijing jails reformers, controls journalists and employs hundreds of thousands of censors on social media. Twitter , Facebook , YouTube and many global news sites are blocked. Instagram was closed down after mainlanders shared photos of Hong Kong people using umbrellas against pepper spray and tear gas.
Posing with a bus covered by protest signs in Hong Kong, Sept. 30. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
As a financial capital, Hong Kong cannot survive without open access to information. It has more newspapers than any other city in the world. It’s been a window on China since the communist revolution. An unintended consequence of Beijing’s recent crackdown is that expelled foreign journalists now operate from Hong Kong, delivering news of the protests.
The Wall Street Journal’s first overseas edition was launched in Hong Kong in 1976. A running joke among Journal opinion writers is that it’s the only place in the world where our free-market, free-people beliefs are mainstream. Google searches from China are routed to Hong Kong servers so that results can be delivered uncensored.
This year has seen unprecedented physical attacks on journalists in Hong Kong, presumably at Beijing’s behest. China extorted advertising boycotts of pro-democracy publishers in Hong Kong. It forced critical bloggers to close down. Jimmy Lai, founder of the popular anticommunist Apple Daily newspaper, was targeted by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, raising doubts about the integrity of the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong chief executive, who oversees the agency.
Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old student whose arrest last month brought hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong’s seven million people to the streets, had earlier sparked a movement that forced Beijing to back down on free-speech issues. In 2012, his Scholarism group successfully fought a mainland edict that Hong Kong schools institute “patriotic education.” In contrast, the Communist Party last year identified seven forbidden topics for schools on the mainland: democracy, universal values, civil society, free markets, free press, criticism of the Communist Party (“historical nihilism”) and questioning of the current regime.
There was concern about the survival of freewheeling Hong Kong as part of China well before the handover in 1997. A memorable Wall Street Journal editorial-board meeting occurred in 1990, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited New York after Journal editorials criticized her for agreeing to give Hong Kong back and failing to offer British citizenship to Hong Kong people.
Thatcher looked at her watch with 10 minutes left in the meeting. “I have just enough time to say what I came here to say,” she said. She defended her policies on Hong Kong and called the editorials “hurtful.” She ended by leaning forward to demand: “Do I make myself clear?”
Years later Thatcher admitted in a BBC interview that she had tried to negotiate continued British administration of Hong Kong and that her handling of the transition was a low point—confirming our suspicions she was defensive because the criticisms were justified.
By breaking the promise that Hong Kong can select its own government, China’s current rulers are violating clear obligations. In the 1980s an earlier generation of Beijing rulers reassured a world nervous about the handover by signing a treaty with Britain promising one-country, two-systems and Hong Kong control over the pace of democracy.
Hong Kong’s fate is to be the world’s window on an unpredictable China. The view is darkening as reformers in Beijing are vanquished by hard-liners, who fear freedom in Hong Kong will encourage mainlanders to demand their own rights. But if Beijing ignores its commitments and closes Hong Kong’s window, it will reveal the true character of China’s leadership.