Autocrats retreat before people power
During the 10 years I worked in Hong Kong, week after week I wrote
asking for greater democratisation in the then British colony and
for the removal of the political shackles that bound some six million
I was often
scoffed at by Chinese and British businessmen and others who thought
I had lost my mind trying to preach democracy and freedoms to a
people who could not care less about politics.
Hong Kong people
are not interested in politics. They want to make money. They are
only interested in their economic well-being and the only paper
they want in the hands is a currency note not a ballot paper.
That was the
constant refrain. The more I advocated democratic reform and criticised
the British colonial administration for not caring about Hong Kong's
political progress, the more I was told that I did not understand
the Chinese mind. The thoughts of the Chinese sage Confucius were
thrown at me causing even more confusion in the general debate.
was a lack of interest in politics. When I went to vote at the first
elections after Hong Kong's return to China's sovereignty in 1997,
I had an entire TV crew trailing me. They could not understand it.
Why was a foreigner taking the trouble to vote?
interests in Hong Kong such as the business community and some important
families who wanted to keep power and influence to themselves were
determined to scuttle any moves that weakened their power and influence.
To democratise and enlarge an already highly circumscribed electorate
was to lose power and influence.
in sovereignty did not matter to the rich and famous. They had only
to change sides like some of our own politicians and businessmen
who never seem to tire of jumping from side to side. Those who had
prospered under the British and wore the colonial OBEs and MBEs
with as much pride as those who had been burdened with a knighthood
and carried the prefix "Sir" as heavily as their stuffed
wallets, would equally quickly shed them and accept some Chinese
Patten, a former Conservative Party chairman became Hong Kong's
last governor in 1992, he angered China's leadership and the colony's
movers and shakers by expanding the electorate by giving the vote
to another 2 ½ million people and making elections more equitable.
called him the foulest of names while the Hong Kong business community
and other reactionaries in that society including some Colonel Blimps,
began protesting to London about Patten's political frivolities.
What many of them, who would gladly switch sides as long as they
earned their billions and contracts, failed to understand was that
Chinese society was changing, that many Hong Kong Chinese studying
or working abroad were enjoying the political lifestyles and freedoms
of those western countries.
It is not we
who could not read the Chinese mind but the powerful Chinese business
community that had become isolated from the ordinary Hong Kong people
who were increasingly developing their own worldview while the rich
were getting richer.
When over a
million Hong Kong people demonstrated in June 1989 against the Beijing's
suppression of the pro-democracy protests and the killings in Tiananmen
Square, it was a show of solidarity with kindred people on the mainland.
Those who thought
that Hong Kong people were more conscious of their own economic
well-being and life style and would not take to the streets received
a rude shock. Among them was Hong Kong's British administration.
But what happened
earlier this month when half a million people took to the streets
to protest against a new security law that would, among other things,
curb the freedoms of association, expression and press and introduce
a new offence of subversion, was unprecedented since Tiananmen Square.
That is not
all. The demonstrations continued with the Legislative Council being
surrounded by silent protestors the day the law was to be discussed.
The Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was forced to withdraw the bill
promising to make changes to reflect Hong Kong and international
concerns. Shortly after Mr Tung's appointment as chief executive
I had publicly argued that he had no idea of political pluralism
and that he is the last person to advance democracy in Hong Kong
as promised in the Joint Declaration between Britain and China and
China's Basic Law, the mini constitution of Hong Kong.
enough, British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in Hong Kong on
Wednesday as part of an East Asia tour and would be stepping on
a diplomatic minefield.
change in sovereignty, Britain still does have some responsibility
for Hong Kong as the handover was done under the Sino-British Joint
Declaration whereby the territory will be governed on the "One
country two systems" principle. This system is intended to
preserve Hong Kong's freedoms and lifestyle for 50 years from 1997.
So Britain, as a signatory to an international treaty, has at least
a moral obligation to see that the rights and privileges enjoyed
by the Hong Kong people remain undiminished.
The Hong Kong
people see it as Britain's duty to confront Beijing when the governance
of Hong Kong departs from the principles set out in the Joint Declaration
that the two sides solemnly signed.
three-nation swing through Japan, South Korea and China was planned
it was to be an uncomplicated diplomatic tour, as smooth as Shanghai
silk. But then the unexpected happened. Hong Kong exploded and took
everybody by surprise including the British and Chinese governments.
for Blair is this. Since Sino-British relations hit rock bottom
during Chris Patten's time, Blair who came to power in 1997 has
been at great pains to mend it and establish a partnership that
relies on quiet and private rather than roof-top diplomacy.
He has been criticised by human rights activists and opposition
for not publicly taking on China's human rights record.
lands in Hong Kong he will certainly meet with some legislative
councillors and business interests. Blair cannot avoid taking a
public stand on the tough new law even if the Hong Kong government
has repented. But he must do so without antagonising his Chinese
his talks in Beijing that precedes his Hong Kong visit a way will
be crafted allowing Blair to escape with dignity. Such diplomatic
double-talk cannot hide the lesson to be learnt by politicians everywhere.
Never underestimate the political savvy of a people and the collective
power of a resentful populace.