China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2004/Jun

Seven Years Later

It is now seven years since that momentous night on 30 June 1997 when the United Kingdom’s Union Jack, which had flown over Hong Kong since 1841, came down and China’s five-star Red Flag was hoisted and began to sway freely in the wind, a wind that would surely bring significant changes to this prosperous city.

On that night President Jiang Zemin and Prince Charles solemnly shook hands. A contentious history had ended. The Opium War of 1840s and 50s was finally resolved without further violence, but not without preoccupation. President Jiang was quick to dispel any fear anyone might be harbouring as he promised, ‘An even more splendid future for Hong Kong,’ based on the promise of ‘one country, two systems.’ For 50 years Hong Kong had the guarantee of the continuation of its liberty and its free capitalistic system. Deng Xiaoping, the last ‘real emperor’ of China,’ who had originated the idea had died only a few months before that historic night.

I asked Father Gianni Criveller, a researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre who has carefully followed the events in Hong Kong since the turnover, to give me his opinion as to what has happened to Hong Kong during the intervening years.

BAM: Father Gianni, what strikes you as especially newsworthy on that historical night of 1 July 1997?

GC: I think it was the solemnity of the occasion. This peaceful return of Hong Kong to the sovereignty of China is certainly unique in the annals of colonial history.

BAM: What do you remember of the key figures present at the ceremony?

GC: I could not help but think that of all the players in this drama, the most difficult role belonged to Anson Chan. She had been No. 2 in Governor Chris Patten’s administration and now she would be expected to play the same role under Tung Chee-hwa. To me, she, along with Martin Lee Chu-ming, represented the guarantee of the continuity of Hong Kong’s civil liberties and the hope for the development of democracy.

BAM: Where was Martin Lee that night?

GC: Lee was not invited to the official ceremony. At midnight that night Lee was speaking to a crowd from the balcony of the Legco building making a strong appeal: ‘The greatest danger,’ he said, ‘would come from the Hong Kong people’s self-censorship, from confusing patriotism with support for the Communist regime.’

BAM: How would you describe the mood in Hong Kong today seven years later?

GC: On the one hand, there is the pro-China faction, which includes the pro-government parties, various political and financial lobbies (to which Tung belongs), the powerful China representatives in Hong Kong, groups organised in Beijing, officials of religious organisations of the Buddhists and Taoists, the pro-China syndicates, sectors of the press and the entertainment world. These groups are all government supporters and they always have the last word in any political decision. They favour the rapprochement of Hong Kong with China. They stress the first part of the formula, ‘One country, two systems.’ To this end they play on the concept of patriotism, sometimes with great success as in the case of the triumphant visit of Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut in November, 2003.

On the other hand, there is the pro-democracy camp made up of the democratic parties, the liberal syndicates, the NGOs (non-governmental organisations), judges, lawyers, some sectors of the press, the Catholic Church and many Protestants. These groups like to stress Hong Kong’s diversity and the ‘two systems’ part of the formula. These groups seek political reform in the hope that Hong Kong will help the development of democracy not only here, but on the Mainland as well.

BAM: What do you feel have been the significant changes in Hong Kong during the past seven years?

GC: The situation in Hong Kong is so complex. Even those really familiar with Hong Kong and China find Hong Kong full of unforeseeable events.

BAM: Could you elaborate on that statement?

GC: The years 2003 and 2004 have been years of trauma for Hong Kong. From 1997 until 2003, things in Hong Kong were relatively calm. Hong Kong all but vanished from the attention of the world. It was retreating slowly and almost painlessly but inexorably towards decline. Then the totally unexpected happened: on 1 July 2003, the city experienced a turning point.

BAM: You are referring to the protest that brought more than half a million people into the streets?

GC: Yes, the government and the pro-China groups did not worry about the protest beforehand. They assumed that no more than 50,000 people would take to the streets. We know now, of course, that more than ten times the anticipated number marched that day. What followed was a political earthquake that had no precedent in Hong Kong politics. More demonstrations followed, the government modified its legislation on Article 23 and key ministers resigned. The whole episode led to the withdrawal of the legislation on the national security law. This was ‘people power’ previously unknown in Hong Kong. The people had won a significant victory.

BAM: Were there other events that adversely affected the mood of the people of Hong Kong?

GC: SARS, of course, was a deeply negative factor. No one in the territory was left untouched by this most unexpected event as Hong Kong struggled to come to terms with the daily deaths, the strain on the medical profession, while also being touched deeply by their devotion and courage. But for three long months, from mid-March to mid-June, SARS had a detrimental effect on Hong Kong, its spirit, its economy and its very lifeline.

BAM: Surely, SARS had a terrible effect on the territory, but were there not additional sources of discontent?

GC: It would take too long here to record all the political and administrative mistakes that fuelled discontent among the people. But I think much of the discontent derives from Hong Kong’s present style of governance. Hong Kong is a highly developed and sophisticated city and the present style is completely out of place. You cannot lead as though you always know what is best for your recalcitrant children.

BAM: If I remember rightly, you were quite involved in the right of abode struggle? Didn’t this episode also divide Hong Kong?

GC: Yes, before the political crisis of 1 July 2003, the most serious issue since the handover had been the right of abode. To settle this issue, the Hong Kong government, for the first time, had recourse to Beijing for a re-interpretation of the Basic Law. This happened after the matter had been settled with the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong. The results of Beijing’s decision inflicted a grave injustice on the children of Hong Kong citizens born in China. The Basic Law recognised the right of children to be reunited with their families. The decision evoked mass protests on the part of lawyers. Even our [late] Cardinal [John Baptist Wu Cheng-chung], who seldom interfered in political matters, felt the need to make a public statement. Bishop Zen Ze-kiun made many interventions. Unfortunately, there was a tragic episode at the Immigration Tower on 2 August 2000, where a frustrated group of protesters started a fire and one of the functionaries and one of the protesters died and many people were wounded.

BAM: I would like to go back for a moment to the subject of democracy in Hong Kong. What do you see happening here?

GC: In my opinion, the democratic movement seems more and more systematically marginalised from political life. Although they receive the majority of the popular vote, they are the minority in Legco due to the complex setup where the majority must follow the Beijing line. Every proposal put forward by the democratic camp is blocked. They are reviled for their lack of patriotism and this only adds to division among the people. The fact that the democrats have the majority vote but no political power has created a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction that, among other causes, led to the 1 July 2003 demonstration.

BAM: This interview will be published in a Catholic newspaper, so I would like to ask you this question: Do you think that the Catholic Church was sufficiently prepared to meet the challenges of the handover?

GC: I think it was well prepared. It was not alarmist, but neither did it harbour any illusions. Our three bishops carefully guided the ship on an even keel. Cardinal Wu, a hierarchical figure who was dearly loved by the people, guaranteed a turnover without trauma. In fact, he left the running of the diocese in the hands of his coadjutor, Bishop Joseph Zen, and his auxiliary, Bishop John Tong. The style of these men is completely different, but they are also complementary. Bishop Zen is of an impetuous and interventionist nature. He soon made his strong voice heard on the issues of national and local interests. He was soon dubbed, ‘the conscience of Hong Kong.’ During these intervening years, Bishop Zen has taken positions on the right of abode, the administration of schools, national security, the canonisation of the 120 China martyrs and religious freedom in China, among others.

Bishop Tong has played a quieter role, whenever possible, keeping the doors of dialogue open to everyone, but always in support of Bishop Zen’s positions. When our beloved cardinal died in 2002, Bishop Zen took over the reins of the diocese. At first there were moments of uncertainty. His contentious style even created difficulties within the Church. But after the spectacular victory over Article 23, Bishop Zen’s prestige increased both locally and internationally, and the priests and faithful now seem united in support of their outspoken bishop.

BAM: Here is a final question: Lately, there have been some significant political events that have caused concern not only among the people here but also throughout the international community… Would you comment on this?

GC: The momentum generated by ‘people power’ on 1 July 2003 has continued through 2004 with the people seeking a faster pace of democracy. On 1 January 2004 more than 100,000 people marched requesting direct elections for the Chief Executive in 2007 and the Legislative Council in 2008. This request is in accord with the Basic Law, which aims at the full democratisation of Hong Kong and universal suffrage. Unfortunately, Beijing stepped in with a second re-interpretation of the Basic Law, dashing all hopes for early democracy and setting no timetable for future political reform. On 1 July 2004, there will be another march or demonstration. This should gauge the extent of public discontent toward the local and central government.