Hong Kong — 2019, 2003, 1984, 1979

Hong Kong Apostasy


In late 2017, China Heritage published ‘We Are The Wooden People’ 我們都是木頭人, an essay by Lee Yee 李怡 (see Hollow Men, Wooden People (The Best China, VI)China Heritage, Christmas Eve, 2017). Lee transcribed a poem read out at a private function in mid December by He Weifang 賀衛方, a noted professor of law at Peking University (for a video of He reading the poem, see here, and for biographies of He, see here and here). A long-term irritant to the Party and its pet law makers, Professor He — a famously outspoken public intellectual — had been blocked from all forms of social media  from May 2017. This has not prevented him from speaking out.

On 9 August 2019, He Weifang offered an analysis of the crisis created by the political obduracy of Communist Party leaders in Beijing and their Hong Kong minions. In particular, he identified the stagnation of meaningful, progressive legal reform in the People’s Republic as the root cause for the ongoing unrest in the south. He Weifang dates the problem back to 2003.

As we have noted a number of times in China Heritage, as well as our work since 1986, however, we regard the year 1979 as the pivotal moment not only for the future of Hong Kong, but for the People’s Republic of China itself.

In early March that year, the dissident Wei Jingsheng was arrested for, among other things, having voiced a warning about a looming new post-Mao autocracy. At the end of that month, Deng Xiaoping, the autocrat in question, promulgated Four Cardinal Principles that re-affirmed the role of the one-party state in Chinese life.

Gradually, it is becoming appreciated that the year 1979 is of profound significance for all of those involved with China, be it in East Asia or around the world.

For his part, Lee Yee has argued that the year 1984 was the pivotal moment in contemporary Hong Kong history…

An Object Lesson from 1984

There are those who have waved the Union Jack during the 2019 Resistance Protests. Seeing that flag brings to mind the press conference [on the 21st of December 1984] that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher held in Hong Kong after she had signed the ‘Sino-British Joint Declaration’ in Beijing.


The reporter Emily Lau [Lau Wai-hing 劉慧卿, 1952-, who was then working for The Far Eastern Economic Review] asked the Iron Lady:

Lau: Prime Minister, on Wednesday, you signed an agreement with China promising to deliver over five million people into the hands of a Communist dictatorship. Is this morally defensible or is it really true that in international politics the highest form of morality is one’s own national interest?


[Thatcher: Can I just say this to you? What do you think would have happened if we had not attempted to get an agreement? In 1997, 92% of the Territory would automatically have returned to China without any assurances, without any of the advantages of the Agreement that we have now.

[May I not put it to you that the situation now is vastly better for Hong Kong and accepts and honours and acknowledges the fact that China wishes the lifestyle of Hong Kong to continue under that Agreement?

[I think you would have had great cause to complain had the Government of Great Britain done nothing until 1997, and I believe that most of the people — indeed, the overwhelming number of people in Hong Kong — think the same. You may be the solitary exception.]

Today’s tragedy started with the question about ‘the highest form of morality’ that Lau posed back in December 1984.


from Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Revisiting the Baltic Chain’
重提波羅的海人鏈, 《蘋果日報》, 2019年8月12日

  • NoteThe full text of the exchange between Lau and Thatcher has been added — Ed.

The following essay was published in the South China Morning Post, 9 August 2019. Our thanks to Victor Mair for bringing it to our attention.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
12 August 2019

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Photo: Robert Ng. Source: South China Morning Post


China could have limited
Hong Kong extradition bill protests
if it had a comparably fair judicial system

He Weifang


The current situation in Hong Kong is becoming more worrying. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s handling of the extradition bill has been improper from the beginning.

That Lam would not be in her current position without the support of Beijing is not a secret. We have no idea to what extent Lam can make decisions herself on the extradition bill, however, in a city of 7 million people, it is incredible that nearly 2 million protesters flooded the streets in one single day in June, let alone those who have taken to the streets for the first time since then.

It is obvious that this bill has lost support and should not be pursued. Lam has reassured the public that “the bill is dead”, but she could have made the point in a much simpler way by adopting the legal term “withdrawn”. However, she does not seem to be able to utter that word, and there must be some reason behind that. Her mealy-mouthed attitude suggests she might be preparing for a retreat as a contingency.

There are still 28 years to go before the “one country, two systems” constitutional principle expires, but Hong Kong is in reality moving towards “one country, one system” 22 years after the handover. Hong Kong people have been unsettled by the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers, who had been spirited away in barbaric fashion.

China’s judicial reform has stagnated since 2003 and the establishment of the National Supervisory Commission in 2018 has produced the horrible result of putting the Communist Party’s power above that of the judiciary. This is a significant reversal to the time of Chairman Mao. Even mainlanders have no confidence in the country’s judicial system, so how can Hongkongers be convinced?

Instead, Chinese authorities could use Hong Kong to perform a trial of democracy. Hong Kong’s sound legal environment and 7 million well-educated people are good foundations for free general suffrage. The city used to lead the global rankings for freedom and lack of corruption in government, but its scores have been dropping steadily in the past few years.

The British won the respect of many Hong Kong people for their political wisdom during the colonial period. They allowed heated public discussions and even fierce debates on colonial affairs within the parliament, but Hong Kong could always find support and sympathy from colonial authorities, which undoubtedly eased their dissatisfaction with the British colonial rule and even fostered some local forces to support the British.
These rational debates and the tolerance for different views played a cohesive rather than divisive role in both internal and external affairs in Britain, as the consensus reached through free expression was solid and powerful.

If China were to have had a comparably fair judicial system, the Hong Kong people would not have protested so vehemently against the extradition bill.

Hong Kong demonstrators have been urging the government to meet their five demands over the now-suspended extradition bill. Even though the demands are reasonable, it is impossible for the government to meet all of them, especially the “implementation of universal suffrage”.

However, it is realistic for the Hong Kong government to set up an independent commission to examine whether excessive force was used by the police, whether any “protesters” were deliberately inciting violence among the demonstrators, and what is behind the Yuen Long mob attacks. This is something that the Hong Kong government can decide on its own, rather than defer to the central government.

Given that a majority of the public has no confidence in the city’s executive, the independent commission should involve legislators and judges with high credibility. The commission should also try to offer guidance to the government on how to deal with similar crises in the future.

Lam should also take some responsibility for the consequences of the current unrest, as she rushed the controversial extradition bill through the legislature, without leaving enough time for hearings and public debate. Any sensible executive would have resigned over the uproar caused by the bill, however, the dilemma for Lam is that her resignation would embarrass Beijing.

The Chinese propaganda machine has launched an offensive to control the narrative about the Hong Kong protests using abusive and colloquial language, which has irritated many Hong Kong people. It is very worrying that the confrontations has become normal and are moving in an increasingly violent direction.

A particular concern is that under Article 14 of the Garrison Law, the Hong Kong government has room to request that the central government deploy the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Hong Kong garrison to maintain public order.

But Hong Kong is different from Beijing, where the authorities had kept a tight rein on information and brutally put down the student-led demonstrations in 1989. The whole world is now watching Hong Kong, and whether Beijing will suppress the protests using the PLA. If that were to happen, Hong Kong’s special trade status would be jeopardised, creating huge uncertainty for China that the country could hardly bear.

China is currently beset with difficulties on diplomacy and trade. Deploying the PLA to Hong Kong without an extremely prudent evaluation would be disastrous.