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Hong Kong’s Moment of Truth

China has waited 23 years for “its” security law to prevail in Hong Kong and is unlikely to back down now. That will force the city's residents to make a choice they had long hoped to avoid: either knuckle under, or get out.

LONDON – There was always something illusory about the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that guaranteed the continuation of Hong Kong’s capitalist system and basic freedoms for 50 years after the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The Joint Declaration had been made possible by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s clever “one country, two systems” formula, which enabled the United Kingdom to withdraw, with face-saving grace, from a colonial position it could no longer defend.

The illusion lay in the belief that a second system based on economic freedom and the rule of law could be maintained for 50 years within a communist dictatorship. Calling the Joint Declaration an international treaty and lodging it with the United Nations was beside the point, because neither Britain nor anyone else was going to go to war to defend it.

What seemingly gave the illusion substance was the belief that preserving Hong Kong’s capitalist way of life was in China’s self-interest, especially given the country’s own embrace of the market economy under Deng’s guidance. There was also the remote hope that Chinese capitalism would gradually lead to greater democracy, so that the two systems would eventually converge.

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