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Independence Day

By Talia Milgrom-elcott

Madeleine K. Albright has just announced that soon after speaking at Harvard's Commencement, she will be heading to Hong Kong to represent the United States in the ceremonies marking Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule.

On July 1, Hong Kong will end its century-long tenure as a colony of the somewhat anachronistically termed British Empire and will return to Chinese authority. The move is an earth-shaking one, only in part because the people of Hong Kong, who have flourished under the invisible hand of capitalism, are about to be cupped in the very visible hand of socialism. But the economic questions, while serious, are not the fundamental issues at stake.

More troubling are the strange harbingers of social and political tyranny. China has already declared that the popularly elected Legislative Council will cease to exist once China's rule is established. The laws of free speech and freedom of the press, as well as other integral elements of civil liberty, have been declared negotiable property, subject to the amending pen of China's leaders.

Continuing this trend, on April 15 China defeated a resolution in front of the United Nations that would have condemned its human-rights record. Since the vote was a procedural one, centering on the issue of whether or not the United Nations should even take action on the resolution, China effectively silenced international discussion on its treatment of human beings. As if to underscore the defensive and dangerous attitude on the part of the Chinese, Wu Jianmin, China's delegate to the U.N., explained the vote as a "victory for cooperation over confrontation." Denial, as my younger brother reminds me, is not just a river in Egypt; in fact, it seems to flow ram pant through China.

The language that surrounded the vigorous lobbying and ultimate defeat of the resolution speak to a general world view that dominates China's perspective on the West and speaks frighteningly clearly to future prospects for civil freedoms in Hong Kong. Dismissing the accusations against its human rights record as Western impudence, Wu argued in a speech to many in the U.N. that the Chinese had absolutely no human rights to speak of before the Communist takeover in 1949. Somehow, that was supposed to exonerate China of its violent actions ever since. Finally, Wu stated that China had followed its own course for 5,000 years of its history, and it intended to continue to do so. The message was clear: Western countries, with your high-falutin' ideals of freedom, stay out!

China's blanket refusal to take responsibility for criminal violations of human rights and its desire to limit civil freedoms in Hong Kong once it is under China's control should cast Madeleine Albright's decision to represent the United States at the transfer ceremonies in a morally and politically more uncertain light. Although Albright deliberated carefully with other members of the Clinton administration and key democratic leaders in Hong Kong before ultimately deciding to attend, her presence at the event lends credence and approval to a regime that does not deserve it. Albright believes that by attending the event, she will "underline American support for the continuation of Hong Kong's current way of life and freedoms." However, in an unusual moment, it seems Albright and the Clinton administration can learn from Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said in a speech at Beijing's Foreign Affairs College, "America cannot remain silent about the basic lack of freedoms...in China. Were we to do so, we would not only betray our own tradition, we would also fail to fulfill our obligations as a friend [to] both China and Hong Kong."

Given that Albright has decided to attend the ceremony, she has a responsibility to use her presence to assert our continued commitment to the democratic ideals of freedom, individual autonomy and self-determination. To do any less would be a sorry stand for a secretary of state renowned for her principled positions and hard lines.

Talia Milgrom-Elcott's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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