SYDNEY — While the rest of the world debates the terms under which they might engage China, Beijing is busy trampling on its agreement with the British over Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. In the handover agreement, both parties agreed upon Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, as a document that provided assurances regarding Beijing’s “one country, two systems” pledge.

Most visitors to the former crown colony, now known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, would think little has changed there. And they are partly right. Little has changed on the surface. Unfortunately, there has been a constant erosion and corrosion of the basic institutions Beijing promised to leave intact.

It is clear that China’s authoritarian leaders hope that they can subvert these institutions to serve their own ends. On the one hand, they implemented a rigged electoral system that dilutes the democratic process and marginalizes reformists like Martin Lee. At the same time, Beijing appointed a congenial but administratively challenged chief executive for the SAR to ensure compliance with their demands.

This would have been bad enough. However, there has also been a weakening of the judicial system. It bears pointing out that the openness and transparency of Hong Kong’s legal system was perhaps the most important underpinning of the material success and freedoms enjoyed there. Ironically, with the exception of Jimmy Lai, Hong Kong’s tycoons are too busy cutting deals with Beijing to realize what is happening. Most of the superrich do not understand that the entrenched system of the rule of law is what allowed them to become wealthy in the first place.

They are relying upon their personal connections, “guanxi” in Chinese, to arrange favorable treatment from corrupt mainland officials. The bad news is that as these practices become perfected, they will inevitably seep into business dealings in Hong Kong. The good news is that the forces of globalization ensure that corrupt, authoritarian governments will join the Suharto regime of Indonesia in the dustbin of history.

The most recent interference with Hong Kong’s affairs was revealed in a warning issued by Wang Fengchao, an official of the Central Government’s Liaison Office in the SAR. He insisted that the Hong Kong media must not publish views advocating independence for Taiwan.

He declared that journalists had a responsibility and an obligation to support reunification of China while upholding its unity. In addition, the media should not disseminate information that might be interpreted as advocating the “two-states” theory articulated by Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui or any others who might advocate independence. At the same time, he urged the SAR government to move quickly to enact an anti-subversion law based upon Article 23 of the Basic Law to deal with such matters.

In his warning, Wang asserted that his proposed limitations had nothing to do with press freedom because Taiwan was a state matter that should be dealt with differently from other news items. As if Beijing’s continued human-rights abuses were not enough, Wang’s comments provide ample evidence that Communist Party officials do not understand the nature or value of individual rights and freedoms.

The media have now been instructed that they must handle Taiwan-related news differently. Compliance with this demand would be tantamount to self-censorship and undermine editorial independence as the foundation of press freedom. In effect, the media would be reduced to tools for the promotion of the current ruling party’s policies.

At present, the Basic Law guarantees press freedom along with freedoms of speech and publication. It would be a stretch to imagine that restricting such freedoms is consistent with the spirit of Article 23.

These misguided actions are further corrupting the Basic Law and serve to weaken Beijing’s implausible terms offered to the Taiwanese people for unification under the conditions of autonomy promised to Hong Kong. At the same time, a crackdown in Hong Kong would destroy investors’ confidence in its laissez-faire institutions.

In another instance, Beijing violated the spirit of noninterference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs by indicating its displeasure with a ruling that would grant an extended right of abode to some mainland citizens. In response, the SAR government reversed the decision and issued a statement acknowledging Beijing’s right to reinterpret the Basic Law.

The insensitivity of China’s authoritarian leadership to Hong Kong citizens’ wish for greater economic and political freedoms sullies its own image. At the very least, it casts a pall over expectations of Beijing’s willingness to uphold international agreements that it considers inconvenient.

Although Marxism may have been set aside for the moment, China remains in the grip of a Leninist power structure that is rigidly authoritarian. In its present incarnation, the leadership in Beijing is not only going against the tide of human history; it is also violating Vladimir Lenin’s vision of anti-imperialism. In response to the colonial imperialism of his day, Lenin supported the rights of self-determination for all people. This should presumably include people in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Beijing insists on disregarding the expressed preferences of Chinese people in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The current leadership should build upon the successes of Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw the modernization of China’s economy. It should yield to the inevitable forces of history that demand a modernization of China’s political system.

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