The Future of Democracy in Hong Kong

ChinaFile Presents Anson Chan and Martin Lee in Conversation

Veteran Hong Kong political leaders Anson Chan and Martin Lee describe some of the core values—such as freedom of the press—that they seek to maintain as Beijing asserts greater control over the territory seventeen years after Britain handed it back to China on the condition that universal suffrage (one man, one vote) be granted by 2017. Chan and Lee spoke to a public audience gathered at the Asia Society New York headquarters on March 31. Their full ninety-minute conversation with journalist Isabel Hilton begins at 3:30 in the video above. An eleven-minute highlight reel and transcript of these excerpts is also below.



Anson Chan: There will be change in China, because I do not think any country can experience the sort of economic growth that China has experienced without, at the same time, a degree of political liberalization. It will come. Not perhaps at the pace that we would like to see in Hong Kong.


Anson Chan: I consider myself every bit a patriot. I am Chinese; I want to see a strong China, but a strong China not just in economic terms but a China that is confident in its ability to deal with its own people, in its ability to tolerate different points of view, in increasingly embracing universal values—that is, respect for human dignity and the basic rights and freedoms that we are fortunate to enjoy in Hong Kong. I am convinced that one of these days, I don’t know how long, I can’t even look five years down the road at what’s happening in China, much less ten years, fifteen years, but I am convinced that there will be change. Because, if nothing else, the mainlanders themselves will be demanding change. It happens every time. When people’s basic needs are satisfied they will look at whether the government is open, transparent, and accountable. They will demand more of a say in the formulation of policies that impinge on their everyday lives.

Martin Lee: The whole world is going down the democratic way. Even if China were to be the last country in the world to obtain democracy, it would still have to go that way. Not that it necessarily wants to go that way, but the whole world is going that direction. So Anson is right. I will not see it in my lifetime, I am already seventy-five. But it doesn’t matter. You guys will see it. China will ultimately have democracy because I just cannot see how China can keep democracy away for long. It will come, and when the day comes China will really be great. Because then all the Chinese people, every one of them, will not disappear, will not be said by the government to have committed suicide when they are murdered, and will have their rights protected by their government. That day will come. But we must be prepared to do something to make it happen, and we are prepared to start with Hong Kong because that is where China already promised the international community that [it] will have democracy. And we must insist it is genuine democracy. Let it begin with us, and then finally it will come to China. There is no doubt at all that it will happen. You just cannot avoid it.

Freedom of the Press

Anson Chan: In recent years we have been particularly concerned about increasing self-censorship on the part of the media. But recent incidents—a whole series of incidents: the vicious attack on Kevin Lau, but also on another group of reporters; the dismissal of a very popular talk show host simply because she is articulate and a vocal critic of the government, the free television license, how the government went back publically on its stated open policy of not limiting the number of licenses that they issue—all these have brought to the fore the fact that Beijing is tightening its control over the media, over its commentary. And where is this going to lead?

Martin Lee: And I am of course extremely conscious of the importance of the freedom of the press. To me, if there is no more freedom of the press then no other freedom is safe. People are said to have committed suicide in China and people disappear in China, but in China nobody gets to know about it because there is no free press. So no freedom can be safe without press freedom. In Kevin Lau’s case, he used to be my political assistant when I was drafting the Basic Law. I visited him in the hospital and he said to me, “because of the way I was attacked,”—they cut him behind his knees—he said, “certainly the guy who wanted this to be done to me wanted me to be on my knees, so I will make sure that I stand up again.” And when I was there with him, he had to be lifted by a very small lift. Something was put underneath him, a mat, and four nurses used that little machine to lift him to an arm chair. And when he was able to sit in that armchair, he was very happy because I could now sit. Those of us who don’t suffer from any handicap of this kind should thank God we are not in that position, but I have confidence that Kevin will certainly do his best to be able to stand up again. But it is not going to be easy.

Hong Kong’s Core Values

Anson Chan: I think the core values we particularly treasure in Hong Kong are open, transparent, accountable government; a belief in fair play, a level playing field; competition; the rule of law, protecting particularly rights, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, free flow of information. All these are crucial underpinnings if you want to see sustainable economic growth. You ask yourself: Where would commercial organizations be in terms of their access to genuine information if press freedom [were] curtailed? If you curtail press freedom, the next thing that will be looked at is the whole question of social media: How can you control it? And ultimately, controlling social media, the internet, etc. will have an impact on commercial activities in Hong Kong, both local commercial activities and foreign commercial activities. So, we want to hold on to these core values because we see this as Hong Kong’s underlying strength. These are the strengths that enable Hong Kong to play a very unique role in China’s overall long-term economic growth, particularly in terms of helping our country modernize and come truly into the twenty-first century and be accepted as a fully fledged member of the international community and embracing universal values.

Martin Lee: I think Deng Xiaoping had in mind that Hong Kong will lead China forward in fifty years’ time and that China ought to catch up with Hong Kong. So China doesn’t want—Deng Xiaoping doesn’t want—China to drag Hong Kong back after reunification, after China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong. But unfortunately the leaders of China in recent years have departed from this blueprint from Deng Xiaoping. We would like Hong Kong to converge with China at the end of the fifty years on a high level. I am afraid Hong Kong will be dragged down a little, but hopefully not too much at all. And China will go up to converge high, rather than to converge low. But that is why we have to resist any low convergence.


Anson Chan: Beijing has promised the people of Hong Kong we will be able, on the basis of one man, or one-person-one-vote, as Martin would prefer it, to elect our Chief Executive. But there is another important milestone that at the moment is not catching great public attention, and that is the 2016 elections to the legislative council. If we are going to have any hope of moving toward a genuine one-man-one-vote for the election of all members of the legislation in 2020, then 2016 is the last opportunity for us to lay some sort of foundation for this eventual vote.

Hong Kong and Mainland China

Martin Lee: I think Beijing is afraid of losing control in Hong Kong, which is totally unnecessary because they will not lose control over Hong Kong. If any democrat is elected as Chief Executive there is no way for this democrat, whether man or woman, to wish to confront Beijing, because his or her job is to govern Hong Kong according to the Basic Law and therefore as part of China. But of course such a person could not be and would not be dictated to by Beijing by doing something which is harmful to Hong Kong and in breach of the promises made in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

Anson Chan: Hong Kong at the moment is the only piece of Chinese soil where you can continue to hold the annual candlelight vigil to commemorate the June 4 incident. It is the only piece of Chinese soil where dissenting voices are still allowed and tolerated. We even have mainlanders coming to Hong Kong to participate in public demonstrations and to participate in the candlelight vigils because they know very well they are not allowed to do this in the mainland.

Martin Lee: And they will come to me on these occasions and say, “Mr. Lee, continue, because if Hong Kong has democracy one day maybe China will also have democracy, and please don’t give up.”