Recalling his years as a correspondent in British Hong Kong, Neville de Silva draws comparisons between the territory then and now
Three months after China’s brutal crackdown on the mass protests at Tiananmen Square in June 1989,I moved to Hong Kong to work for the Hong Kong Standard newspaper.
The reverberations of the tragedy in Beijing –to which millions of Hong Kong people reacted as never before, spilling on to the streets in protest against the ‘killing of the innocent’ – had hardly died down.Although I missed the mass demonstrations, conversations with my new colleagues and the widespread media coverage brought vividly to life those days that shocked Hong Kong and focused world attention on the small British colony.
Not that Hong Kong people were strangers to street protests; the first of those went back to the 1960s. But never before had these rallies seen such massive crowds. Moreover,former demonstrations had always been over domestic issues, not in sympathy with causes elsewhere.
Thirteen years earlier I’d spent around ten days in Hong Kong attending a journalists’ seminar.It seemed a peaceful enough place, lacking the vestiges of a politically active colony common to some other British territories, but a bustling city nonetheless, doing what it does best – making money.
When I returned in 1989,Hong Kong had changed dramatically. This international commercial and trading hub was now even more prosperous and thriving, with more millionaires per square foot than anywhere else in the world. The hundreds of Rolls Royces owned by the territory’s glitterati were a testimony to its unmistakable wealth.
But there are two crucial differences between then and now. One is the current sense of foreboding in the air. The other is that both Hong Kong’s capitalist class, which formerly eschewed politics as long as they could enrich themselves, and the average citizen, once only intermittently interested in governance, have now been jolted out of their comfort zones.
Back then, China’s leaders, who were so ready to turn the guns on their own people, were poised to rule over Hong Kong.In the 1984 Joint Declaration between Britain and China that settled the question of the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had promised the territory self-government and a continuation of its free lifestyle after the colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Deng had named it ‘one country, two systems’, an arrangement which was actually meant to entice Taiwan, a functioning Chinese democratic state,into reunification with China. That would be the real jewel in China’s crown.
It was not just Hong Kong society, including its wealthy entrepreneurial class, that was shaken to its roots by Hong Kong’s mass uprising over Tiananmen Square, empathising with those who stood up to one of the world’s last Communist states.Millions of Hong Kongers, irrespective of their status, turning out in peaceful protest against China’s leaders was shock therapy to the colonial government.
Benevolent though that administration was, it had little interest in bestowing on Hong Kong even the trappings of a nascent democracy. It had already reneged on promises to democratise the Executive Council (Exco) that functioned as the policy-making body.
Within a couple of months of Hong Kong raising its collective voice,the then Governor David Wilson, in his annual policy address in November 1989,surprised the people by proposing to introduce a Bill of Rights to provide fundamental rights for Hong Kong.
Long before the Hong Kong people shook the colonial administration out of its nonchalance,the Hong Kong Standard had invited a Sri Lankan friend of mine, Dr Nihal Jayawickrama – a legal academic teaching at Hong Kong University’s Law Faculty – to draft a Hong Kong Bill of Rights,copies of which were widely distributed,including to MPs of the House of Commons.
This naturally aroused wide interest and was a major talking point by the time I got to Hong Kong. During the ten years I worked there under both British and Chinese sovereignty, I had come to know well Britain’s last two governors and three of China’s chief executives who succeeded the British after 1997.
One of them was Carrie Lam, a senior civil servant, and currently chief executive who is now taking heavy flak over the Extradition Bill which might well undermine Hong Kong’s system of justice if it becomes law.
As Diplomatic Editor and a political columnist and parliamentary sketch writer, I had not endeared myself to emerging politicians from the business community or the pro-China legislators who seemed determined to sabotage even the smallest step towards democratic reform, however belated.
The more I delved into Hong Kong history the more sceptical I became that China would keep its promises of a self-governing Hong Kong, its freedoms and lifestyle.Hong Kong enjoyed freedom of the press, speech and association, the rule of law and an independent judiciary.It was hard to believe that China would allow such a relatively free society with self-rule to function next to the Chinese mainland, where such freedoms were nonexistent.
To those who were aware of British colonial history it seemed clear enough that Hong Kong would never enjoy representative government, unlike other former British colonies such as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Britain’s first crown colony.
For one, Hong Kong’s governors were always civil servants, some of them Chinese-speaking sinologists like the then governor David Wilson. They trod carefully in their dealings with China.
Then there were the wealthy industrialists and businessmen,who readily pandered to the colonial masters and were now becoming increasingly obsequious to Beijing. They had no interest in democracy and other such unnecessary impedimenta of colonial rule.
So they got on famously until the Hong Kong people’s mass reactions to Tiananmen and Beijing’s authoritarianism shook them all out of this convenient arrangement. It soon seemed obvious that Britain and China had hoodwinked the people of Hong Kong.
Within a couple of months I was already writing that Hong Kong freedoms were in jeopardy and would wither away if they were not actually crushed.In January 1990 I wrote: ‘Only now, 150 years after the British took over the administration of this territory, has London suddenly acquired a proprietary interest in bestowing on the people of Hong Kong some of the benefits of representative government…’
These comments did not win me any friends, yet one still had the opportunity to write freely – though for how long remained doubtful.
Then, in July 1992, Hong Kong was politically galvanized when London sent Chris Patten, a seasoned British politician and the first politician to be governor,in the twilight of British rule.
I had first met Patten when he was a cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. I interviewed him on television in Sri Lanka some time in 1988, and that early connection helped considerably in the last years. We became friends and that friendship continued, even when he later served as the European Union’s top diplomat and I had moved to London.
In his first inaugural address, Patten announced a package of political reforms that drove Beijing to apoplexy. Just a whiff of ‘democracy’ and Beijing condemned him to perdition as a ‘thief for a thousand years’.
Space does not allow a discussion of the Patten reforms. Suffice to say that critics mistakenly believed he was trying to introduce democracy. What his proposals actually attempted to do was make those who enter the Legislative Council more representative of the Hong Kong people. He was opening the elective process by broadening the base of electors.
Chinese anger resulted in the then ongoing Sino-British negotiations on Hong Kong being stopped.
The current disturbances in Hong Kong are, in a way, a continuation of the process that Patten set in motion. He stirred the people to political awareness, and emboldened them to defend their rights. But dark days lie ahead as China, loathe to relent to the protestors lest this convey a dangerous message to dissenting voices on the Chinese mainland, will strike back – one way or another.