Journalists celebrate themselves annually with Pulitzer Prizes for the best work published in the previous year. Often, though, a single year is too short a time span in which to judge journalism. A different and more distinguished prize might eventually be established and awarded for journalism published a decade, or perhaps even a quarter-century earlier.
It can sometimes take that long to judge whether the reporters and editors got a story right.
In that spirit, I’ve lately been looking back at the U.S. press coverage from 1984.
That was the year that China and Great Britain issued their "Joint Declaration on the question of Hong Kong."
It’s a "question" that’s in the news again now.
The Chinese communists who took over after Britain retreated have forced the closure of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper and arrested its founder and several other executives.
It’s the latest in a series of recent actions by the Chinese Communist Party that were encapsulated well in a June 30 statement by the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong:
"Over the past year, the CCP’s violations of promises China made to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties have accelerated to a dizzying pace, with the arrest of more than 100 pro-democracy activists, politicians, and journalists on national security charges that carry potential life sentences."
The shrewdest observers saw it coming.
The Wall Street Journal published a series of editorials on the point.
The editorials were good at the time, but read in light of recent events, they deserve some sort of I-told-you-so medal for accuracy in predicting what would happen.
A Jan. 19, 1984 Journal editorial, "The Hong Kong Syndrome," said, "China has insisted all along that it really doesn't want to change Hong Kong. We need Hong Kong to help us develop, the Chinese say; we've changed. But that claim isn't credible to most Hong Kong Chinese, and with good reason…. The unavoidable suspicion is that China, whatever its good intentions, may not be able to stop itself from meddling once it does take over. It's in the nature of totalitarian regimes to control, after all."
An April 16, 1984 Journal editorial, "Panda Bear Diplomacy" previewed President Reagan’s trip to China. "China is a totalitarian country that crushes dissent as thoroughly as the Soviet Union," that editorial said, urging Reagan to "ask for assurances about the future of the 5 million free people in Hong Kong."
The Journal followed with a May 4 editorial, "Those Hong Kong Blues," observing, "The five million free citizens of Hong Kong watched the American president's tour from a very different perspective, no doubt wondering if they were being sold out."
An Aug. 3 Journal editorial warned "the British don't seem to be asking the Chinese for any guarantees about Hong Kong's political future."
An Oct. 10, 1984 editorial, headlined, "Promises, Promises," observed, "the essence of the declaration is that five million largely free people will soon have their futures determined by a totalitarian government . . . In short, Hong Kong will now live or die by Peking's political whim."
It concluded, "the last, most gracious British act of empire would be to amend the Nationality Act to admit to England those people who want to leave Hong Kong. Then at least not all of Hong Kong's free, prospering people will be faced with a gamble that their Communist cousins will finally live up to their promises."
And the Journal stayed with the story in a January 1989 editorial headlined, "Maggie’s Honor." That editorial repeated the suggestion that the United Kingdom allow Hong Kong residents to flee:
"As a signatory to the Joint Declaration, Britain has an obligation to see that its terms are enforced. In the event China refuses to comply, the only honorable recourse would be for Mrs. Thatcher to announce that Britain would be revamping its nationality laws to re-introduce the right of abode in Britain.
"This would give its subjects in Hong Kong an insurance policy on an agreement imposed on them without their consent and violated almost daily against their wishes."
That editorial concluded, "During her visit to Beijing in 1982, the Iron Lady offended her Chinese hosts with the truthful observation that 'those who do not honor one treaty will not honor another.' This cuts both ways, and today it is Britain's signal failure to live up to its own treaty that has the people of Hong Kong wondering what stuff the Iron Lady is really made of." Thatcher later complained in person about the editorial to the Journal’s editor, Robert L. Bartley.
At the signing ceremony in Beijing on Dec. 19, 1984, Thatcher had claimed in a speech that the Joint Declaration "preserves Hong Kong's familiar legal system and the rights and freedoms enjoyed there." She noted that the Secretary-General of the United Nations "has described the agreement as an example for other countries of the way in which difficult international problems can be successfully resolved."
The course of events in Hong Kong was not just entirely predictable; it was predicted, entirely, in advance, by the Journal editors with remarkable clarity: "It is in the nature of totalitarian regimes to control."
Alas for Hong Kong.
As an example of newspaper perspicacity, however, the outcome is glorious.
It's a stain, though, on the legacies of both Thatcher and Reagan, about whom there is otherwise much to admire. Let it be a reminder to President Biden, as he weighs future negotiations with China, with Iran, with the Taliban, or even with Syria or the Hamas leadership in Gaza, that any deal with such a regime is only as good as a free country’s determination and ability to enforce its terms.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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