Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang, is in Washington this week meeting with high-level U.S. officials and no doubt telling them that the "one country, two systems" arrangement established in the former British colony eight years ago is working well. He is also undoubtedly seeking to reassure those he meets -- including Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- that the United States need not worry about Hong Kong, that under Chinese rule it is marching steadily toward democracy.

To assess such claims, it's worth going back 21 years to the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration by the British prime minister then, Margaret Thatcher, and her Chinese counterpart, the late Zhao Ziyang. "The Hong Kong Special Administration Region," it says, "will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs, which are the responsibilities of the Central People's Government."

It was a promise, as things have turned out, that was too good to be true.

Granted, none of the grimmest predictions for Hong Kong under China's control have come to realization since the Union Jack was lowered on that rainy night of June 30, 1997. The People's Liberation Army, stationed at the heart of downtown Hong Kong, remains low-key and nearly invisible. The media, their self-censorship notwithstanding, can still criticize Hong Kong's northern masters if they choose to. More than a third of the legislature's 60 seats are occupied by people whom Beijing doesn't consider friends. The list could go on.

Actually, Hong Kong was, in a way ruled under a "one country, two systems" formula by the British, too. British governments followed socialist policies at home for decades after World War II, but in Hong Kong they gave free rein to Adam Smith's invisible hand; Hong Kong has often been called the world's freest economy. But the post-1997 government, despite paying lip service to free-market principles, has undermined this cornerstone of Hong Kong's past success.

The governing philosophy for Hong Kong has become more hands-on. The government, directly under Beijing's influence and control, now is more willing to fill roles the private sector should play. For example, it is the largest shareholder of the Disneyland theme park that opened in Hong Kong last September. And instead of allowing market forces to play out, the government often tries to lead the way on major endeavors, from setting up a cyberport to trying to push through a gigantic cultural complex. Unhappy with the press's growing tabloidization, the government was tempted to establish a press council to fine papers and jail editors for violating people's privacy. Its attempt to pass anti-subversion legislation that would have curtailed civil liberties prompted a half-million people to march in protest two years ago.

But perhaps nothing better illustrates the myth of "one country, two systems" than the way Beijing halted democratization in Hong Kong. According to the Basic Law -- Hong Kong's mini-constitution, drafted by Beijing -- the "ultimate aim" is to elect both the chief executive and the entire legislature by "universal suffrage"; the earliest possible times for this would be 2007 and 2008, respectively.

But now Beijing has played its trump card -- its power to interpret the Basic Law -- by proclaiming that the relevant clauses didn't mean what they said. The Tsang administration released an election proposal last week that suggested only a few meaningless gestures that amount to a slow inching forward. I have come to believe that I will not see true democracy established in my home town during my lifetime.

This should come as no surprise to those who can see through the tremendous social changes of the past two decades to discern the true nature of the Chinese regime: It remains a dictatorship, intolerant of democracy. Beijing issued a white paper last week reiterating its Orwellian definition of democracy: "China's democracy is a democracy guaranteed by the people's democratic dictatorship."

It's not Tsang's fault that Hong Kong is not yet joining President Bush's global community of democracies. I think he does his best to defend Hong Kong's interests. But he faces one daunting obstacle: He cannot go beyond the point at which Beijing says no.

When Bush visits China to see President Hu Jintao next month, he could do a great service to Hong Kong by reminding Hu of the promises made in that Joint Declaration two decades ago, and by urging him to give more freedom to Donald Tsang to run Hong Kong.

Eight years after the Hong Kong handover, I miss the British. Oddly enough, I didn't like them when when they ruled Hong Kong as a colony. But when I look back, I recall life as seeming more promising in those days than what we are facing today. And we are still a colony.

The writer is a Washington-based columnist for Hong Kong's Apple Daily.