The sands of time are running out for the British colony of Hong Kong, and the outlook for it under Communist China's rule is not encouraging.
Originally, when Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China, Beijing promised benign and light-handed rule. The Chinese regime assured that while Hong Kong would become part of China, it would be allowed to retain its unique character, its free-enterprise system of commerce, its press freedoms for perhaps half a century. But as the July 1 takeover has loomed nearer, the signals from Beijing have become more ominous.
Hong Kong journalists who have written critically of the mainland are being told that their work is being watched and that they can be ready for retribution. Laws protecting human rights are destined for repeal. Modest political reforms enacted by the British in the last days of their rule are to be undone.
Most of Hong Kong's predominantly Chinese population of 6 million already have fled, or are related to people who fled, from Communist rule on the mainland. Now they are destined to be ruled by the Communists again.
One might think that the United States would have some interest in their fate. But while some members of Congress are deploring Beijing's early intimidation of Hong Kong's citizens, the Clinton administration remains mute. The president does go through the routine condemnations of child labor in China and the jailing of dissidents, but clearly there is no intention of offending Beijing by tough talk in defense of Hong Kong.
The reason is plain. China is awakening from its long years of economic torpor and is emerging as a market of enticing opportunity. American business stands to make billions of dollars from its investments in China. Mr. Clinton does not want to rock business's boat. Confrontation with China is not part of his foreign-policy agenda.
Thus the people of Hong Kong seem likely to suffer the same fate of neglect by the US as did Bosnia's Muslims for three years as the US and Western Europe waffled over the issue of their oppression by Serbian nationalists.
The ideal would be for reason and rationality to prevail in Beijing. It is not in China's interest to wage a campaign of political repression in Hong Kong. Even if the US in the face of such a campaign were to stand ineffectively on the sidelines, Beijing would suffer from widespread international condemnation. Further, such measures would create doubts about the economic stability of Hong Kong, probably causing a flight of capital and skilled managers.
But as has often been the case in China under Communist rule, reason and rationality may be overtaken by wrong-headedness and narrow political considerations. There is a continuing struggle for the leadership in China after the old guard is finally gone. Showing toughness on Hong Kong may be part of the posturing that plays into that struggle for leadership.
For now, toughness seems to be the Beijing line. Tung Chee-hwa is its nominee as chief executive to run Hong Kong after the British governor departs. He has cheerfully defended proposals to scrap some 25 laws protecting the human rights of Hong Kong citizens as soon as the Chinese take over.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are to abolish the legislature that the British, with a woefully tardy nod to democracy, installed last year. It is to be replaced with a "provisional legislature" made up of Beijing's stooges, appointed by a selection committee of Beijing loyalists who had to meet outside Hong Kong to do the deed. The action provoked demonstrations in Hong Kong, and British Gov. Christopher Patten termed it "stomach churning."
Nobody is suggesting that the clock can be turned back in Hong Kong. Nothing can avert the Chinese takeover. When I lived in Hong Kong years ago, I talked with a British official about the ever-present, overpowering threat from the Chinese mainland. "Hong Kong," he said, "is indefensible. If they want it, they can take it with a phone call." Although Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did stand up to Argentina and sent an armada to the south Atlantic to save the Falklands, the British (and certainly not the Americans) are not going to frustrate Chinese determination to fold Hong Kong back into China.
But Hong Kong's people should be treated with civility. If they are not, we should hear something more than an embarrassed clearing of throats from the major powers. A little thunder in the cause of freedom would be good.
* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.