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Holding Out in Hong Kong

Democracy” may not be the first word to roll off most Chinese tongues, but people understand the value of freedom. A Japanese reporter asked a desperately poor immigrant from China why she had come to Hong Kong, where she was living in dismal conditions. She answered: “Life is hard here, but at least we have our freedom; that is the best thing about Hong Kong.”10 If Martin Lee, Emily Lau, Szeto Wah, Christine Loh, and their fellow elected democrats seem particularly concerned about safeguarding freedom in Hong Kong, this concern too became more urgent after what happened in Beijing. All Sir Percy has to say about Tiananmen is that it “increased the difficulties facing British negotiators.”

When Hong Kong voters were given a chance to show what they thought for a change, the democrats outvoted the pro-Beijing candidates in the 1995 Legco elections by margins of three to one. The reason so many people voted for the democrats was not “welfarism,” or the love of Government House, but the conviction that elected politicians are better guardians of civil liberties than property brokers and shipping tycoons, who cut secret deals with their Chinese guanxi in the name of Chinese values. It was Chris Patten’s reforms that enabled Hong Kong citizens to make this point. If there is any hope left for liberal politics in China, this was surely a point worth making.

I asked Liu Kin-Ming, a young journalist on a local Chinese newspaper, what he thought of Patten. Liu said he felt ambivalent. Patten should have done more, he should have come ten years earlier, but in the end he was a British politician, and it was up to the Hong Kong people to fight for their rights. Then, suddenly, in a fit of passion, Liu said: “What I hate most about those Sinologists, like Cradock, is their arrogance. They think they know China, but they don’t know shit!”

Liu is a humorous fellow, who calls himself a “self-hating Chinese” (his wife is Jewish). He feels bad that Hong Kong people haven’t fought harder. He resents his colleagues for calling him “Westernized” when he refuses to tone down his criticism of the Chinese government, or, more often, of his own editors. He told me about the pressures on local journalists to conform, to adapt, to trim, to be more patriotic. Columns deemed to be too critical of Beijing are dropped because, editors say, they are “irrelevant.” Some major papers have stopped covering the Hong Kong democrats altogether. Most editorials in the Chinese press, Liu said, are now pro-Beijing. One of the exceptions is a paper called the Apple Daily. It also happens to be the most popular Chinese paper in Hong Kong.

The Apple Daily was started in 1995 by a self-made businessman named “Jimmy” Lai Chee-ying, who escaped from China as a young boy. Lai was an active supporter of the Tiananmen demonstrations. A few years ago, he attacked Li Peng in print, calling him the “son of a turtle’s egg with zero I.Q.” This aspersion on Li’s brains and unfortunate provenance—he was an orphan—was not appreciated in Beijing, and Lai was forced to close down his business assets in China. But the Apple Daily is popular precisely because of this kind of feistiness, this refusal to kowtow, as well as its scandal stories, showbiz gossip, and racing tips. The editor, Loh Chan, told me that being critical was good for business. The circulation is up to 400,000 and still rising.

I saw Loh in the Apple Daily office, a bustling place in an industrial area of Kowloon. The walls were decorated with posters of nude girls. In Loh’s office was a small bust of Lu Xun, the critical genius of twentieth-century China. I asked Loh whether the paper would be able to continue as it was after June 30. He told me it had just bought its own printing plant, and that the paper’s huge market share would see it through. There was no reason to worry. They would continue to write what they wanted.

Perhaps. But just before I left for Hong Kong, I had heard the news that a major bank had withdrawn its promise to underwrite Lai’s publishing company on the stock exchange. The reason was not given. When asked, a spokesman for the Sun Hung Kai bank said it was “pressure” which should be “understood.”

One month later, another news story emerged, this time about the main English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post. This flagship of the English press, edited by an Englishman, was always known for its editorial independence. There are doubts about this now. The editorials on Chinese politics have softened, even if articles critical of Beijing still appear. The latest news was that a senior Chinese editor from the China Daily, an English-language government organ in Beijing, had been sent to the Post office to keep an eye on things. His office is close to the editor’s. Editorial interference has been denied. Item: a recent notable to join the board of the Post is the former diplomat and connoisseur of the Chinese mind, Sir Percy Cradock.


Is there one single maxim that could ruin a country?” Confucius replied: “Mere words could not achieve this. There is this saying, however: ‘The only pleasure of being a prince is never having to suffer contradiction.’ If you are right and no one contradicts you, that’s fine; but if you are wrong and no one contradicts you—is this not almost a case of ‘one single maxim that could ruin a country’?”

—Confucius: Analects

The drama of China’s takeover of Hong Kong has attracted writers like flies to a carcass. Paul Theroux’s novel Kowloon Tong is by no means the trashiest product to emerge from the feast. But it has some irritating flaws. He deals with Chinese and colonial British stereotypes, but doesn’t always get the details right: a slick English-speaking officer of the People’s Liberation Army would not wear the manufacturer’s label on the outside of his suit, as though he were a peasant from Shandong. An Englishman born and bred in Hong Kong would not be as totally ignorant of Chinese affairs as Theroux’s main character, a textile manufacturer named Neville “Bunt” Mullard. No English family in Hong Kong, however chauvinistic, would stock its house with nothing but British products. The problem with Theroux’s novel is that caricature undermines the credibility of his characters.

What Theroux does get right, however, is the air of deceit, both in British colonialism and in the Chinese takeover. In Theroux’s story of ghastly Brits and even ghastlier Chinese (often literally) screwing each other, everyone is deceiving everyone: Bunt deceives his mother about his secret sex life; Hung, the PLA officer, deceives Bunt in order to take over his factory; Bunt is deceived by his mother, who is perhaps in cahoots with Hung (“business,”…). One sentence about Bunt’s relationship with his mother cleverly sums up the relationship between a colonial master and his native subjects: “He felt so stifled, so possessed by her that he became childishly insistent on deceiving her any way he could.”

The formula for the future status of Hong Kong, “One Country, Two Systems,” has a history of deceit. The phrase was first used in public by Deng Xiaoping in 1984. But the concept is very close to the one applied to the Autonomous Region of Tibet in 1951. Tibet was to be kept separate from China, to allow “feudal” Tibet to catch up with communism. Hong Kong must remain separate from China for fifty years to allow Communist China to catch up with…capitalism? In both cases, the “existing political system” would (will) not be altered. We know what happened in Tibet. We don’t yet know what will happen in Hong Kong. But one issue involving deliberate deceit has yet to be openly discussed: the role of the Chinese Communist Party. What will the New China News Agency be doing in Hong Kong after June 30? Surely not just reporting the news. Will senior people in the Hong Kong government declare their membership in the Communist Party? Which system would they be serving? Who will be accountable to whom?

When Christine Loh, an independent legislator, asked these questions in Legco two years ago, Governor Patten said he did not wish to answer. She brought the issue up again last March, saying that

official silence about the Communist party is only one notable example of a web of omissions, evasions and half-truths that have been considered necessary to hold Hong Kong together despite the contradictions inherent in its status as a British colony in China. 11

She is still waiting for an answer.

It is clearly a problem. There are said to be up to twenty thousand Party members in Hong Kong. Three men in the designated Chief Executive’s council, as well as his closest adviser, a smooth operator named Paul Yip, are rumored to be among them. “McCarthyism,” shouted Shiu Shin Por, the pro-Beijing think tank director, when I put Christine Loh’s question to him, “red-baiting.” Look, he said, after he had calmed down, “it makes no difference whether a guy is a Communist. He won’t tell you anyway, so you just deal with him as an individual.”

But why the secrecy? After all, the Party is legal now. I asked Tsang Yok Sing, a left-wing school principal, who acts as an adviser on Hong Kong affairs to Beijing, and after losing in the 1995 Legco elections, was appointed to the provisional legislature. Tsang is a thoughtful, quiet-spoken man, the kind of intellectual who remains loyal to a cause whose stupidities and cruelties often give him pain. Questions about his own ties to the Party are met with polite smiles and soft denials. He gave me an explanation for the official veil over Party activities, which sounded both plausible and absurd. If the Party operated openly, he said, there would be a great deal of trouble. People would run to the Party office, if they had a problem with the government. Party members might not want to run in elections, for fear of losing. But if they won, Legco might be dominated by Communists. The Chief Executive himself might be a Communist. The people he appointed might be too. The Chinese Communist Party would then be running Hong Kong. Who, then, would still feel confident about “One Country, Two Systems”?

The case for deceit could not have been more clearly put. If the Chinese Communists do not maintain secrecy about the one thing that counts, political accountability, their promise of “One Country, Two Systems” will stand naked. Nonetheless patriots, many businessmen, and British diplomats with reputations to defend, say the two systems can exist in harmony, as long as the democrats are muzzled. One of the most tireless boosters of Hong Kong and China in the American business community is a banker named William H. Overholt. Overholt admires China’s “development-oriented authoritarianism.” He thinks that strong technocratic government, also known as “economism,” will bring prosperity and thus, in time, “political progress.” This progress, in his view, must not be hindered by US kibitzing about human rights. Hong Kong, he argues, will benefit from China’s economism, but only if it is ruled by its own brand of economism, that is, by a business elite which puts the economy first and refrains from criticizing Beijing. Martin Lee and the Hong Kong democrats were wrong, in Overholt’s view, to back the Tiananmen protesters in 1989. “The basic rule,” he writes, “of ‘one country, two systems’ must be that neither China nor Hong Kong is allowed to subvert the other.” 12

Overholt’s opinions echo the thinking of Hong Kong tycoons. Sir S.Y. Chung, for example: “Our main objective must be to maintain our usefulness to China, not be a burden or a threat. Neutrality is the only way that we can survive.” This view might seem practical, but it strikes me as being naive. For Hong Kong cannot remain neutral. It will be part of China and its interests will clash. Some Chinese and Hong Kong interests are by their nature mutually subversive. “Consultative colonialism” can leave a great deal of personal freedom, when the colony is ruled by a democratically governed power with a strong common-law tradition. And unlike Chinese government enterprises, British state institutions were not competing for business in Hong Kong. But the only way Hong Kong can limit subversion from China, such as corruption, blackmail, and the erosion of civil liberties, is by having an independent judiciary, and a fully elected government. Yet these are the very institutions that would help to subvert the Communist system in China.

In April I attended a meeting of a new political party, which was started by Christine Loh. It is called the Citizens Party. Its program is hardly radical: rule of law in the common-law tradition, popular representation, freedom of expression, a free-market economy. The people sitting around the table were mostly young, from diverse backgrounds, dressed casually. They spoke in Cantonese, specked with English. The atmosphere was never solemn; there were many jokes. Loh held up booklets from the US National Democratic Institute, and suggested that classes might be held to teach citizens how to be democrats. It was hard to imagine that Beijing, with all its armed might, would be afraid of these people. Yet Beijing is afraid. For this kind of thing is contagious; it might spill over the border.

The vice-chairman of one of the main democratic parties in Hong Kong told me as much: “We don’t like to talk about this. But one reason for staying in Hong Kong and continuing our fight for democracy is that it is good for China in the long run. By maintaining and improving the system in Hong Kong, it will be a good example for China.” He is right, of course. And that is why Beijing is trying to snuff it out—with the help of Hong Kong tycoons and their boosters. If democracy is crushed, it would be a personal tragedy for Christine Loh, Martin Lee, and the others. But it wouldn’t be good for business either, for without the protection of the law, safeguarded by democratic institutions, there is nothing left but deals, and guanxi. And that is when the free market economy becomes a gangster economy.

What this might involve is the subject of a famous cautionary tale, repeated in Red Flag over Hong Kong. An Australian citizen named James Peng had textile and property interests in China, just a few miles across the border from Hong Kong. He might have done some dodgy deals on the way; it is hard in China for a businessman to get on without them. In any event, the local government authorities wanted to take over a slice of his business. Peng refused and sought alternative guanxi: he got in touch with Deng Xiaoping’s niece. Instead of helping him, however, she took over his business, and arranged for Peng to be jailed. This led to an endless number of lawsuits, in the course of which Peng was released from jail, kidnapped, and finally sentenced to eighteen years in prison for breaking a corruption law which had been enacted more than a year after his arrest.

Still, most businessmen in Hong Kong will not openly express their worries about the future. They will try to secure foreign passports for their families instead. I heard greater skepticism from an unexpected quarter: patriotic socialists who felt their patriotism had been betrayed. One of them was a veteran journalist of the pro-Beijing press, named Lo Fu. I saw him at his cluttered flat near Victoria Park, where a hideous statue of the Empress of India still stands. On his bookshelves were the complete works, as well as a porcelain bust, of Lu Xun. It was odd to find Lu Xun in so many places: at the Apple Daily, at the office of Tsang Yok Sing, the leftist school principal, and now in the flat of Lo Fu. Or perhaps it wasn’t so odd. Lu Xun was a patriot too, whose disgust with corruption in the 1920s made him feel sympathetic to the left. It was a good thing he died in 1936, for his critical spirit would surely have led to his downfall after the Revolution, instead of his canonization by the Party.

Lo Fu was born in 1921, the year the Chinese Communist Party was founded. He supported the Communists for the same reason Lu Xun did: he saw them as patriots, who promised to build a less corrupt, more just, egalitarian, and morally righteous China. Unlike Lu Xun, however, who always kept his distance, Lo joined the Party, and came to Hong Kong in 1948, to write for a left-wing, later Communist newspaper, the Dagong Bao. For years Lo supported all the twists and turns of Party policy, all the purges and campaigns. But although he remained a patriotic Communist after the Cultural Revolution, doubts began to temper his idealism when he saw the mayhem it had unleashed. In 1981, he was no longer trusted by his masters, who ordered him back to Beijing. He was accused of being an imperialist spy—because he had made foreign friends in Hong Kong—and was locked up for eleven years. With the crushing of the Tiananmen rebellion, Lo Fu’s disillusion was complete.

In an interview with the Chinese poet Yang Lian, Lo said something very interesting:

Throughout my years in the Party, I encountered the profound ignorance of my comrades. Their ignorance was a reflection of that within the secrecy-ridden Party hierarchy itself. As tools of the Party’s policy of pacifying the population at large—and following Mao’s much quoted version of an ancient adage: “Confuse the people to help the people understand”—their “politics of idiocy” succeeded only in spreading a culture of ignorance throughout the country. Most of us got used to being the tools of the “idiocy policy.” Since independent thought was taboo, how could we exercise any influence?13

It is in the nature of closed political systems, which claim legitimacy by invoking patriotism and superior moral values, that true believers are often the first to get burned. Lo Fu was a believer. Tsang Yok Sing still is, even though Chinese policy in Hong Kong is opposed to the socialist ideals he always believed in too. I was most impressed, however, by another well-known local patriot. Her name was Dorothy Liu. I didn’t meet her during my stay in Hong Kong. She died on the day I arrived.

With an English degree from Oxford, and a law degree from Harvard, Dorothy Liu could have been the perfect Hong Kong Tatlerite. Instead, since the late 1940s, she was a fierce anti-colonialist and loyal supporter of China. As a solicitor, she worked for mainland Chinese companies, and negotiated the New China News Agency’s purchase of its Hong Kong office. A portrait of Zhou Enlai hung behind her desk. She was the perfect committee person to prepare the way for Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong. Sitting on these committees, however, she began to see the true nature of Chinese politics: efforts to ensure free elections, open government, and so forth were stifled. Then Tiananmen happened, and Liu did an extraordinary thing: she stood up at the National People’s Congress in Beijing and called for a minute’s silence for the innocent victims.

All her life, Dorothy Liu had spoken out against British colonial rule, as a patriot. And now she was prepared to criticize China, as she put it, “out of patriotism.” But the very people who had served the colonial government she had always despised were now rushing to serve Beijing. Committees from which she was beginning to be excluded were being dominated by tycoons who had spent fortunes on the British Conservative Party, before switching sides. Dorothy Liu felt their prominence as an affront. The day after her death, the South China Morning Post ran a photograph. It was taken in December 1993, at the first meeting of the Preliminary Working Committee, an advisory body set up by Beijing. This committee later recommended that the Bill of Rights, enacted after the Tiananmen crackdown, be scrapped. In the photograph, we see Dorothy Liu sitting beside Sir S.Y. Chung. He looks grimly determined, a man used to authority. She is clutching a handkerchief to her mouth. Her eyes are filled with tears.

May 15, 1997

  1. 10

    Yomiuri Shimbun, April 13, 1997.

  2. 11

    The Sunday Times of London, March 9, 1997.

  3. 12

    Overholt, China: The Next Superpower, p. 174.

  4. 13

    Index on Censorship, January 1997.

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