The Mission of Our Times in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Apostasy


The title of the following essay by the venerable Hong Kong political analyst Lee Yee 李怡 — ‘The Mission of Our Times’ 時代使命 — compresses two slogans that, in their origin and import, could not be more different.

Previously, we introduced Lee’s interpretation of a slogan formulated by the independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei (梁天琦, 1991-) — ‘Restore Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times!’ 光復香港, 時代革命! Gwong fuk heung gong, si doi gak ming!. As I noted elsewhere:

‘the obduracy of Hong Kong and Beijing hard-liners turned the slogan of an irrelevant and infinitesimal minority into the rallying cry of a generation.’

Here the author combines Leung’s call to action with the keynote political theme of the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping announced at the Nineteenth Party Congress in October 2017 — ‘Forget Not Our Original Intentions; Hold Fast to Our Mission’ 不忘初心, 牢記使命. This slogan, and its voluminous ex cathedra interpretations, form the ideological core of an ongoing Party re-education campaign launched in June 2019.


I first met Lee Yee in October 1974 when I was passing through Hong Kong on my way to study in the People’s Republic. Three years later, he employed me as a translator and editor. Along with my other mentors — Simon Leys, Yang Xianyi, Gladys Yang, Wu Zuguang, Winnie Yeung Lai-gwan, to name but a few — Lee Yee was an important guide in my developing appreciation and understanding of the Chinese world. It was under his aegis too that, over the years, I would follow the unfolding drama of Hong Kong, starting with the fateful March 1979 meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Murray MacLehose, the governor of the British colony. It was that encounter that triggered the five-year-long negotiations over the fate of the territory.

In this essay, Lee touches on some of the valiant attempts by Hong Kong leaders and opinion makers — Sze-yuen Chung, Lydia Dunn, Quo-wei Lee, as well as Sze-Kwang Lao, Hsü Tung-pin and himself — to play a public role during those negotiations by contributing ideas towards a better future for the city. All of those efforts were aimed at preventing, or at least forestalling, the deep-seated and systemic crisis that has been unfolding in China’s Special Administrative Region like a slow-motion train wreck since 1997.

Lee Yee’s perspective is crucially important for those who would understand the decades-long efforts of men and women of conscience to help vouchsafe the most unique, and only truly global, city in the Chinese world. His essays should also be recommended to the swathes of new-born Hong Kong Experts whose pontificating — be it in Chinese, English or other languages — now guides and shapes international opinion. Of course, in an ideal world, Lee Yee’s work would also be read in Mainland China.


Readers may be understandably appalled by the fact that Lee Yee quotes approvingly the views of Steve Bannon, the dyspeptic former White House Chief Strategist and a notorious one-time ‘Trump whisperer’. When forging a path through the verbiage of AmeriNazis, the odium of which is not dissimilar to the noxious prose of The People’s Daily, I find it helps to hold one’s nose.

Present US policy towards the People’s Republic and the gimcrack stance of the Administration towards Hong Kong bring to mind the words of the ill-fated Thomas Beckett in T.S. Eliot’s verse-drama Murder in the Cathedral:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

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


Related Material:


The Mission of Our Times

Lee Yee 李怡

Translated and annotated by Geremie R. Barmé


Even my old friend Ni Kuang has said that he never thought Hong Kong people would continue to protest so courageously. First one, then two million took to the streets; throughout there have been young people on the frontlines facing life-threatening danger. He also remarked that, if Hong Kong people had openly opposed the looming domination of the Chinese Communists back in the year, there would be no need for millions to take to the streets now. Back then, he says, 500,000 would have been more than enough to intimidate the British, so much so that they would not have so easily handed Hong Kong over to Beijing. But at the time, the majority of Hong Kong people didn’t comprehend the stark reality lurking behind the façade of the Communists. Ni recently observed that:

‘Only a few writers like you and me opposed the Handover [on 1 July 1997]. But our views simply didn’t resonate in the wider society. Everyone let a precious opportunity slip through their hands.’

[Note: For Ni Kuang’s views as referred to here, and published in an interview conducted by Apple Daily, see Ni Kuang 倪匡, ‘The Nobility of Failure’, China Heritage, 14 August 2019]


During the negotiations between the Chinese People’s Republic and the British [from late 1979 to 1984] Sze-Kwang Lao [勞思光, 1927-2012, a philosopher and independent thinker who moved to Hong Kong as a result of the ‘White Terror’ imposed on Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek], Hsü Tung-pin [徐東濱, who was born in Beijing but relocated to Hong Kong and was one of the main writers for the Ming Pao 明報 ‘stable’ of anti-Communist publications], along with me, established the Hong Kong Prospect Institute [香港前景研究社 which, apart from both private and public advocacy, also published the book《香港前景: 香港前景研究社基本資料》in 1982]. Our institute formulated a number of proposals that suggested how the British administration of Hong Kong might continue to function and evolve. However, our ideas failed to gain any wider traction.

At the time, those who were most trepidatious about what could happen after 1997 were absorbed in their preparations to emigrate; while those who had no similar way out simply gave in to fatalism. There was also a minority — including university students — who actually believed that, following the Handover, the ‘People of Hong Kong’ would finally be put in charge. They were beclouded by was a kind of hazy patriotic sentiment and they shared a visceral belief that it would somehow be ‘immoral’ for Hong Kong to remain under British rule.

As I have previously mentioned, during those years [of the negotiations from 1979 to 1984] Sze-yuen Chung [鍾士元, 1917-2018], a Senior Member of the Hong Kong Executive Council [and a man later dubbed ‘The Godfather of Hong Kong Politics’], shuttled between London and Beijing because of the concerns that he, and others like him, had about the transfer of sovereignty to the People’s Republic. London accorded him scant attention while, up in Beijing, he had a famously unhappy encounter with Deng Xiaoping.

[Note: Following fruitless discussions with the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in London, Sze-yuen Chung and two other eminent Hong Kong political figures — Lydia Dunn and Quo-wei Lee — travelled to Beijing June 1984 where they were received by Deng Xiaoping. Deng made a point of emphasising that he was only meeting with them as a courtesy. Although he regarded them as prominent Hong Kong individuals, in his eyes they had no authority or indeed any capacity to represent anything apart from their own views. In fact, at the time, in the signature style of Communist Party sniping, Chung was derided as being little more than ‘a bastard courtier without a court’ 孤臣孽子.

In his published account of the fateful Beijing encounter Chung said that Deng told his Hong Kong guests point blank:

‘You know full well that China and the British are engaged in negotiations [over the future of Hong Kong]. We are going to resolve things with the British; we will brook no interference from others. In the past, there was some talk about a “three-legged stool” [that is, representatives of Hong Kong people and interests might also play a role in the negotiations]. There are two legs, not three.’ 中英的談判你們是清楚的,這個問題我們會和英國解決,而且這些問題決不會受到任何干擾,過去所謂三腳凳,沒有三腳,只有兩腳。

When Chung pressed him further, Deng responded:

‘In effect what you are saying is that you don’t think that the people of Hong Kong have confidence [in us]. That’s your opinion; the reality of the matter is that you do not trust the People’s Republic of China!’ 概括來說,你們說香港人沒有信心,其實是你們的意見,是你們對中華人民共和國不信任。

In regard to the future administration of the territory, Deng offered the following:

‘As to who will run Hong Kong I can tell you that we will not cross the line. The future government and administrators of Hong Kong should by and large be Chinese patriots … they will be duty bound to run Hong Kong well. … The Central Government doesn’t want a red cent of your money; things are sure to go well. Any other concerns that they [that is, Hong Kong people] express are unnecessary.’  將來香港由誰來治理,我們有個界線,將來香港政府及其附屬機構的治理人員,主體上應是愛國者 … 他們的任務是把香港搞好。… 中央不願意在香港取一個銅板,所以做的事一定是好的,他們(香港人)的擔心是多餘的。

It was during this period that Deng first officially articulated the concept of ‘One Country, Two Systems; Hong Kong People Will Govern Hong Kong’ 一 國兩制,港人治港.

— trans. G.R. Barmé]

I interviewed Sze following the conclusion of the Sino-British negotiations and he said in a tone of utter exhaustion: ‘I had no real standing; it’s because I wasn’t appointed democratically’. [See ‘Back in the Year — Hong Kong 1984‘, China Heritage, 31 July 2019]. Again, as we have previously noted:

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:

‘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’s reply was:

‘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.’

[Note: Previously quoted in Lee Yee’s essay ‘Time to Talk About the Baltic Chain Again’ included in ‘Holding Hands in Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 26 August 2019]

Of course, that was not the case at all for, in reality, the vast majority of Hong Kong people were not satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations. Regardless of that, no strong voices were raised in protest.


One can appreciate the reasons for that lack of response for back then, even if people were mindful of their past negative experiences [with the People’s Republic], in Hong Kong itself they had no particular sense of repression or coercion. The ambience was vastly different from the kind of general apprehension that people in Hong Kong are experiencing today. Yet here we haven’t been through a ‘democratic christening’ [whereby the electorate acquires a sense of their rights and responsibilities as citizens]; the freedoms and legal system we have enjoyed for so long were not hard won through struggle, rather they were introduced holus-bolus by the British. Just as we don’t usually pay any attention to the precious quality of the air we breath, so too Hong Kong people have previously not been particularly mindful of the boon of freedom and the legal system. You don’t really start fighting for your life until you are actually struggling for every breathe. Without that sense of threat you wouldn’t ever get people to take part in a demonstration. In retrospect it wasn’t true that people simply didn’t take advantage of the opportunities to protest when they should have; they simply didn’t think about the existence of such freedoms, or in fact that they were even necessary. — Put simply, among Hong Kong people there was neither the atmosphere nor the conditions required for mass mobilisation.


Should we claim then that it is now simply too late for the People of Hong Kong to rise up and resist? Of course, it is true that Hong Kong is already completely in the thrall of an autocratic government. In terms of power disparities alone, obviously resistance is futile; it’s somewhat akin to throwing eggs against a rock. The odds of winning are zero. But this David vs. Goliath-like stand off between protesters and the government has in itself an aura of righteous majesty and it is something that has taken the world by surprise. Just the other day, the former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said in an interview that:

‘Time and again with resolution and resilience, they have tirelessly gone out to protest. They are the heroes of the day and should be nominated for a Nobel Prize. These men and women have demonstrated to the world what freedom is all about. They do not give in despite facing down totalitarianism, theirs is a spirit of daring; they are not only an example for the young people of the whole world, they are an inspiration for us all. This is momentous; history is being made here and now. The protests in Hong Kong will be recorded in the annals of history.’

[Note: This quotation has been back-translated from Chinese. For Bannon’s (opportunistic) views on Hong Kong, see Zooming In with Simone Gao, ‘Steve Bannon: If There Is Another Tiananmen in Hong Kong, the CCP Will Collapse, Youtube, 22 August 2019]

Bannon also claimed that if the Communists are so inflamed by developments in Hong Kong that they repeat the June Fourth Massacre, it will surely lead to their own collapse.


In the past, the People of Hong Kong did indeed squander chances they might have had to avoid falling into the clutches of the totalitarian state. The irony, however, is that now history has bestowed on the People of Hong Kong an unprecedented second chance. They now still have the right to use the fragile freedoms they still possess to oppose the overwhelming might of an authoritarian state. These may be but feeble gestures, but they represent the spirit of all of those in China, and throughout the world, who aspire to freedom.

Right at this moment, the People of Hong Kong are on the front line of the universal human quest for freedom and opposition to subjugation. But, just as the old saying holds: it’s like ‘a mantis trying to stop the careening wheels of a chariot’. You may well wonder whether the People of Hong Kong, who merely number a few million souls, are too paltry a force to be able to shoulder such a grand responsibility. Of course they are. However, for better or worse, if you are living in Hong Kong right here and right now, you have no choice but to resist. To do otherwise is to give in to servitude.

This, then, is Hong Kong’s ‘Mission of Our Times’.




  • 李怡, ‘時代使命‘, 《蘋果日報》, 2019年8月26日