Hong Kong Promises to Bedevil U.S. Policy

Tad Szulc is the author of "John Paul II: The Biography" (Scribners) and "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" (Avon)

For the Clinton administration, Hong Kong is fast becoming a foreign-policy and political nightmare even before the British colony reverts to Chinese control on July 1.

At issue is Beijing’s commitment to live up to its treaty obligations and preserve political and human freedoms in Hong Kong. Few in Washington and not many in Hong Kong believe China’s leaders will comply. As a result, U.S. policy toward China may soon become hostage to disputes over the future of Hong Kong, including whether to extend China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status. At the same time, President Bill Clinton is under strong pressure to prevent the Republicans from upstaging him in the public defense of the rights of Hong Kong’s 6.4 million citizens.

The Republicans have already forced Clinton to become personally engaged in the Hong Kong affair in a way that Beijing is certain to regard as hostile. On April 17, Clinton met with Martin Lee, head of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and the biggest vote-getter in the 1995 legislative elections, the colony’s first ever. Lee is an outspoken critic of China’s Hong Kong policy. Clinton decided to talk with Lee only after the GOP leadership had received the Hong Kong politician as a most-honored guest, Speaker Newt Gingrich had himself appropriated the issue during a visit to China and Hong Kong’s hand-picked future chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, had announced plans to curtail the colony’s political freedoms.


When Lee visited Washington two years ago, Sen. Bob Dole greeted him with open arms. At the White House, Lee was received only by W. Anthony Lake, the former national-security advisor. Vice President Al Gore “dropped by” for a chat. At the time, U.S. policy was to be “neutral” on Hong Kong. This year, the plan still was to keep Lee away from the president--until it became clear that the Republicans were running away with the Hong Kong cause. Accordingly, Clinton “dropped by” during Gore’s scheduled meeting with Lee, admonishing Beijing to live up to its treaty commitments on Hong Kong’s civil liberties. (The president no doubt further alienated China’s leaders when he briefly met with the Dali Lama, the Tibetan leader who seeks self-rule for his Chinese-occupied land.)

Hong Kong is likely to exacerbate what already promises to be a bitter congressional battle over extending China’s MFN status, which expires May 31. The president is soon expected to send a message to Congress requesting a one-year extension to keep his China policy on an even keel--and to help facilitate China’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Gingrich has already proposed that China’s trade status be extended for only six months so the United States can “monitor” the Hong Kong situation. But even without Hong Kong, the mood in the Congress is more and more critical of Chinese actions, including human-rights violations, sales of advanced weaponry to “rogue” states like Iran and the $40-billion trade deficit China has with the United States. Allegations of illegal Chinese contributions to various 1996 campaigns have aggravated Congress’ anti-Beijing mood.

Clinton will certainly not compromise with Gingrich on MFN treatment. Yet, his veto of any congressional rebuff may not be sustained in Congress this time, as it was in 1994, especially if major anti-Beijing demonstrations occur in Hong Kong on June 4, the eighth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Demonstrations, which have taken place in the past, would have the effect of highlighting the new, more restrictive rules governing such protests when China takes over. If China is refused MFN status, the entire U.S.-China relationship would be clouded in uncertainty. The planned autumn summit between Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin would be up in the air.

In any case, U.S. policy is confusing Beijing. While Clinton has been criticized for “delinking” China’s trade status and its observance of human rights, the United States continues to press the United Nations Human Rights Commission to pass a resolution deploring Chinese violations of human rights--at great cost. All U.S. co-sponsors, except for Denmark, abandoned the fight when Beijing threatened trade retaliation against them. When the vote was tallied, China again carried the day, the seventh consecutive year it has beat back such a resolution.

The administration might not seem so far behind on the China-policy curve had it paid more attention to its State Department. Following are the main points in the department’s annual report on Hong Kong, as mandated by a 1992 law, submitted to Congress on March 31:

* “China’s actions regarding the future of the legislature and the laws governing human rights and civil liberties in Hong Kong have been disturbing and have caused concern in both Hong Kong and the international community.”


* “There is concern . . . that broad provisions of the future legislation could seriously curtail freedom of speech and rights of association in Hong Kong.”

* “China’s decision . . . to create a provisional legislature raises serious concerns . . . China’s decision to replace the current elected Legislative Council was unjustified and unnecessary.”

* “China’s actions . . . do not help to foster confidence and stability in Hong Kong and send the wrong message to the people of Hong Kong and the international community.”

* “Comments . . . by China’s Foreign Minister Qian Qichen reinforced the concern about restrictions on press freedoms in Hong Kong after reversion.”

The day may soon come when the Clinton administration will have to make up its mind about Hong Kong and China--and say so, firmly and publicly. It is a matter Clinton may wish to raise forcefully when Qian visits this week.