China has an exalted sense of nationhood. Its leaders vilify any comment on its political practices as unwarranted outside "interference," yet Beijing is always eager to lecture America on its policies. Last week, for instance, U.S. officials met with Martin Lee, founder of the party with the most elected seats in Hong Kong's legislature.
The People's Republic of China very publicly took offense at this. Appointed Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa complained, "We will not accept interference from foreign people. Our own people should also not invite foreign people to interfere."
The Lee controversy was part of on ongoing brouhaha over the nation's handling of the "Special Administrative Region" of Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of the city's 6.8 million residents successfully rallied last year to protest the "anti-subversion" legislation that was pushed by the Chinese government. Many of those who took it to the streets then are now advocating free elections and universal suffrage.
That shouldn't be a controversial demand. In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration China promised to guarantee Hong Kong's autonomy and various freedoms, including a "legislature constituted by elections" after the city was turned back over to the mainland. In the 1990 Basic Law, signed by both Britain and China, Beijing pledged to provide an elective legislature and executive by 2008.
However, Beijing has responded to talk of democracy by denouncing activists as "clowns," "dogs," "dreamers," and "traitors," who are "unpatriotic" and "meddlesome" for seeking "outside interference" in Hong Kong's affairs.
IT COMES AS LITTLE surprise that the unelected Communist leaders in Beijing fear the exercise of democracy in lands peopled by ethnic Chinese. Consider the PRC's reaction to past and present presidential races in Taiwan, as well as President Chen Shui-bian's use of a popular referendum on relations with China.
Equally threatening is the fact that Hong Kong residents can vote, and have favored independent voices over Beijing lackies. Bai Gang, director of the Centre for Public Policy Research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, complains, "Pro-democracy politicians have serious inadequacies in identification with the country. However, they have the upper hand over the patriotic camp in Hong Kong."
Translation: In the PRC's view the wrong folks are winning elections. As a result, Martin Lee has more popular legitimacy than does Chinese President Hu Jiantao. Observes the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Lee is thus a leader of the only elected majority party in China. In free countries that would make him prime minister, not a pariah."
Chinese officials are now making noises about allowing only "patriots" to participate in Hong Kong's governance. And "patriots" do not include anyone who favors Taiwanese independence, opposes China's Communist government, fought the anti-subversion legislation, or simply doesn't back the Communist Party.
Beijing has even threatened to dissolve the Hong Kong legislature should pro-Beijing candidates lose control in elections scheduled for September. "None of the democrats are trustworthy," explained Wen Wei Po, China's designated spokesman on Hong Kong.
THERE IS NOTHING Washington can do to prevent the PRC leadership from engaging in unseemly name-calling when residents of Hong Kong ask China to keep its word. Nor can the U.S. force China to keep its word regarding democracy in Hong Kong, but at the very least, U.S. officials can talk to democrats in Hong Kong.
Sen. Sam Brownback invited Mr. Lee to Washington to testify last Thursday about the situation in Hong Kong. While here, Lee met with a number of legislators, as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell and NSC Adviser Condoleezza Rice. There was nothing seditious about any of this. Indeed, Mr. Lee stated his faith that China's top leaders would "get it right." He also wryly noted that he would have preferred to make his case in Beijing, but the PRC refuses to let him come.
Nevertheless, Chinese apparatchiks raised Cain. PRC Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing reiterated that China regards Hong Kong as its property. "The Chinese people have the resolve, the ability and the wisdom to maintain the stability and the prosperity of Hong Kong. We do not welcome, nor do we need, any outside intervention in Hong Kong affairs," he said. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement denouncing all "irresponsible comments by outside forces."
The display brought to mind earlier attempts to browbeat Washington into not allowing Taiwanese Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian to visit the U.S., even to make airline connections to other nations. The Clinton administration proved more than willing to enforce China's wishes. A decade ago President Lee stopped at a military base in Hawaii on his way to Latin America. He was not allowed to leave the facility. A year later Lee sought a visa to attend an alumni gathering at Cornell University, his alma mater. Only under congressional pressure did the administration agree.
Four years ago, President Chen wanted to fly into Los Angeles on his way to Latin America, where a number of small states officially recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. The Clinton administration reluctantly allowed the visit, on the condition that he spend the entire 16-hours at his hotel. He was pressured to cancel a meeting with four congressmen.
Not that Beijing was satisfied. The PRC warned that the Chen visit might "severely" damage Sino-American relations. China has similarly pressured other nations. Beijing sought to convince Great Britain to prevent President Lee from visiting and Japan to bar former President Lee from receiving medical treatment.
GRANTED, RELATIONS WITH the PRC are important. There is no one best strategy to diffuse a potential confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, and selling weapons to Taiwan, as well as offering vague promises of defense, are actions that warrant serious debate. But there should be no compromise over America extending its hospitality to those who share its ideals around the globe. They should be encouraged, not just allowed, to come for alumni visits, trip layovers, and political discussions. This is an internal affair for the U.S. in which China has no right to interfere.
It's obvious that Beijing has yet to get the message that it cannot dictate American policy towards visitors. The Bush administration should call in China's ambassador to settle the matter once and for all. Like Beijing, he should be told, America does not appreciate outside interference in its internal affairs. Washington will allow whomever to visit whenever it desires.