Commentary

Sending a Message to Beijing

By Jimmy Lai
Asian Wall Street Journal on July 10, 2003.>

During his recent visit to Hong Kong to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the end of British rule in the territory, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a speech calling on Hong Kong people to treasure the newfound dignity of being our own masters. What he meant by that was that the people of Hong Kong have been rescued from colonialism and are now truly free.

The premier must take us Hong Kong people for idiots. For when Mr. Wen celebrated our “postcolonial” freedoms, he was standing next to a chief executive who was handpicked by Beijing leaders. That man, Tung Chee Hwa, has spent much of the last year promoting a security law which is more repressive than is mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law, which already sought to circumscribe many of our long-cherished freedoms. When China recovered sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, it simply replaced colonialism with feudalism.

Little did Mr. Wen know that just a few hours after he finished his speech on July 1, history would be made in Hong Kong as people power shone through the veil of feudalism. Over half a million people took to the streets to tell Beijing and the world that the feudal demagogues have no clothes. The voice of the Hong Kong people was clear on July 1. We are living in freedom. We have an inherent dignity as our own masters, and by taking to the streets in a peaceful manner, we prove this to the world.

Beijing long thought that all they inherited from Britain was a colony, and so looked at Hong Kong through the prism of a simplistic image of colonial imperialism painted by their Marxist ideology. Yet after July 1 they discovered that what they have is a city of very special people. Though Chinese, our pride is based on freedoms unknown to most Chinese. We are peaceful and easily governed people, we can even take being disadvantaged from time to time. But we cannot be insulted.

On July 1, the people of Hong Kong spoke back to China. Our message is clear. You imposed Tung Chee Hwa on us, thinking that as long as you gave us a leader who is a Hong Konger you have accomplished your promise of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. After that, you stopped caring. Yet through Mr. Tung you have allowed the creation of an administration that rules Hong Kong based almost entirely on second guessing your wishes. As such, neither Mr. Tung nor his senior officials know or care about what Hong Kong people want. It is something we in Hong Kong have long known. And it was demonstrated again after July 1 when, for the first three days after over half a million people took to the streets to protest his rule, Mr. Tung’s only public response was to say “Good morning.” Even on the fourth day, the best he could manage was, “I have to think hard.”

To the new leaders in Bejing we say, in 1997 you imposed someone on us who is so insensitive, so deaf to the needs of the people that he can’t find support as a leader even among those sycophants in Hong Kong who trade favors as easily as they change yuan to dollars.

The people of Hong Kong have been asking Mr. Tung and now are asking you, “How can you lead if you don’t care?” At almost every turn we have been trashed and insulted by the Tung government. Our prosperity and hopes for our children have been blighted. Our sense of ethics and fair play insulted by cronyism and the corrupt acts of senior officials. And for the six years that this has been underway, no one in Beijing has cared.

But now you have to care. As a new leadership just taking the world stage, your strength and legitimacy will be anointed and perceived by the world, including people in China, based on how you handle us. You will only be perceived as world leaders if you behave like them. Through trade and openness China has called the world to its door. As the new leaders in Beijing you can’t escape the glare of the world stage. Just as China has been awakened as an economic power by free and open trade, the people of Hong Kong have issued a wake-up call for attention and respect.

Over a half million of us in a city of almost seven million took a very long walk to get your attention. We’re not just a colony, but a very proud people. Although angry, half a million of us took to the streets in a peaceful manner that is the mark of a people with serious purpose and self-respect.

People power derives much of its strength from the glare of today’s global media spotlight and the speed of electronic communication. When a sense of injustice reaches a critical mass within a population, this force can appear with surprising speed. In today’s information world there’s not just an ability for people power to be shared among all people, but also a growing sense of shared civility and decency toward fellow men and women. Civility and decency are not just the domains of political activists, they are the aspirations of every Hong Kong family that peacefully and respectfully marched on July 1.

Welcome to the world of decent people, dear new leaders. We applaud you for allowing the Article 23 law to be delayed. You’ve proved you care. We are thankful for the encounter with Beijing this time and your acknowledgement of the wishes of the people of Hong Kong.

Please get to know Hong Kong better. But what is most important is that we get to know you as a new generation of Chinese leaders who are willing to respond to the wishes of the people. For if you respond, China will change. This new sensitivity to decency ignites great hope for a free China.

Mr. Lai is the chairman of Next Media, which publishes the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily and Next magazine. He also served as a member of the first International Selection Committee for the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2002.