The Road Not Taken by Margaret Ng 吳靄儀

The Best China


The following essay is part of ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, a China Heritage series that takes as its focus the 2019-2020 Hong Kong Protest Movement. The protests remain, in essence, a rejection of the Official China of Xi Jinping, and his predecessors, as well as being a celebration of Other China, or The Best China, precious realm, both real and imagined, that has repeatedly been ignored, misunderstood and repressed by the Communist party-state.

Our humble bellies have ingested a surfeit of treachery,
eaten their fill of history, wolfed down legends —
and still the banquet goes on, leaving
an unfilled void in an ever-changing structure.
Constantly we become food for our own consumption.
For fear of forgetting we swallow our loved ones,
we masticate our memories and our stomachs rumble
as we look outwards.

— from P.K. Leung 梁秉鈞, ‘Cauldron’
trans. John Minford and Can Oi-sum


Lee Yee (李怡, 1936-) is a veteran journalist and commentator who has has been writing about Hong Kong’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China for over forty years. His work has featured in Hong Kong: The Best China section of China Heritage from 1 July 2017. During the Hong Kong Uprising of 2019-2020 he has expressed his views, his concerns and anguish, in the regular column that he contributes to Apple Daily, a leading independent media outlet in the city founded by Jimmy Lai (Lai Chee-Ying 黎智英, 1948-), one of the fifteen pro-democracy advocates arrested on 18 April 2020.

As Lee Yee recently observed:

These days, Hong Kong people are very much of a mind when it comes to protecting the value of freedom and the rule of law. It is the same when it comes to the view of both authoritarianism here and totalitarianism in China itself. As the Communist authorities have directed the local authorities to arrest men and women such as these — remember, they have consistently been the most mild advocates of democratic norms in the territory — they have, in effect, wiped out what remained of a middle ground. Now the only choices open to Hong Kong people are: align yourself with a totalitarian regime or rise up to resist and oppose it. There simply is no Third Way.


Lee Yee, ‘The End of Hong Kong’s Third Way’

In the following essay Lee Yee briefly traces the extraordinary journey taken by a unique Hong Kong path-finder — the celebrated lawmaker, barrister and author Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee 吳靄儀. In doing so, Lee refers to and quotes from Ng’s 1983 essay, ‘The Forked Path: Compromise or Defiance’ (reproduced in full below), which was published just as the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign on the Chinese Mainland reminded those involved with the People’s Republic at the time about the abiding political and intellectual underpinnings of the Communist authorities in Beijing. (Although that mini-purge proved to be relatively short-lived — it was widely derided in China, as well as being blithely dismissed internationally — it had a profound impact on my own thinking. This was reflected in a two-part essay that I published in the mainstream Australian media in December 1983-January 1984, for which I was roundly criticised by a slew of bien pensants. See ‘Spiritual Pollution Thirty Years On’, China Heritage).

As I have mentioned in earlier chapters of ‘Hong Kong: The Best China’, I first encountered Lee Yee in October 1974. In July 1977, he invited me to relocate to Hong Kong from the Chinese Mainland and to work with him. As a translator and writer (mostly in Chinese) active in the Hong Kong literary world for the next fifteen years, I learned a great deal from Lee Yee, as well as from numerous independent-minded cultural figures, thinkers and friends who, along with the rich offerings of the local publishing industry, were to guide my evolving understanding of Chinese history, appreciation of Chinese culture and wariness about Chinese politics. I read Margret Ng’s ‘The Forked Path’ shortly after it appeared in late 1983. However, it would be another twenty-five years before I had the good fortune to meet her. Unlike even some of the most celebrated ‘elder democrats’ on the Hong Kong scene, Margaret has, over the decades, been clear-eyed and steadfast in her principled political, social and cultural engagement in Hong Kong, and Chinese, life. Still, it is sobering to read Lee Yee’s recent observation that:

‘The arrest of Margaret Ng on 18 April 2020 was something she had an intimation of all the way back in 1983.’

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
24 April 2020


Related Material:


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

from Robert Frost
‘The Road Not Taken’

‘When the rule of law is imperilled are you just going to walk out, or will you stand and fight?’ — Margaret Ng. Source: The Stand News, 18 April 2020


Margaret Ng’s Way

Lee Yee

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


In the wake of the rounding up and mass arrest of fifteen prominent Hong Kong democracy activists on 18 April [2020, discussed in my previous essay, ‘The End of Hong Kong’s Third Way’China Heritage, 22 April 2020], the Taiwanese writer Joyce Yen [顏擇雅] posted some comments about Margaret Ng [吳靄儀], one of those arrested, on her Facebook page.

In her post Yen included links to two old essays, the first of which — ‘Aren’t We Also Patriotic?’ — was published in The Chinese Student Weekly in November 1963 when Ng was only fifteen years old. [See: 吳靄儀, ‘我們不愛國嗎? — 一個英文書院學生的自白’,《中國學生周報》, 第590期 , 1963年11月8日.] The other appeared twenty years later, in December 1983, in Ming Pao Monthly under the titled ‘The Forked Path: Compromise or Defiance’. [See: 吳靄儀, ‘妥協與頑抗——擺在眼前的路’, 《明報月刊》1983年12月號,《本土新聞》2016年7月16日再版, reproduced in full below]. In the context of those two very different eras Ng’s essays reflect a particular and noteworthy Hong Kong perspective both in regards to the nation and in relationship to the question of patriotism. They also provide an insight into the path taken by one very particular individual.


With the aim of influencing high-school and university students, and more generally the young people of Hong Kong [in the early years of the Cold War], the United States Information Agency funded the founding of The Chinese Student Weekly in 1952. It was produced under the imprimatur of Yu-lien Publishers and edited by Yü Tê-kwan, one of the many cultural figures who had relocated to Hong Kong from the Mainland in 1949 [having fled the advancing Communists during the Civil War]. Later editors included such notable figures as Hu Chü-jen, Te Chen and Lum Yuet-hang. Regardless of that American connection, the name of the journal reflected the real interests of its editors: young Chinese.

In 1963, the Weekly published a number of essays that were critical of the ‘slavish anti-China’ attitudes common among students at the leading English Academy in the colony. As a fifth-year student at the school Margaret Ng declared in her riposte to those articles that:

‘I’m not the kind of “fawning sell-out” that you’ve been talking about. I’m no slave to foreigners lacking any sense of my own country; much less am I one of those despicable types who ignores where they have come from.’

She went on to say that,

‘Some people tell me that they find me very polite, but I always reply: “We Chinese observed propriety strictly.” … I never let an opportunity go by [to express such views]. So you tell me, Friends, aren’t I patriotic enough for you?’


Of course, this sounds rather immature to readers today, but back in that era when the English Academy was truly brimming with a pro-foreign, even slavishly superior arrogance, it is noteworthy that a young female student like Margaret Ng was expressing her sense of national awareness and pride with such clarity.


Following the Hong Kong Riots of 1967, and as the British colonial government made a concerted effort to improve the administration of the territory, residents of Hong Kong began to develop something more than an identity that was merely based on a vague attachment either to China or to England.

Ng who, having been born here, was herself a native of Hong Kong, completed her doctoral studies [at Boston University where she wrote a thesis titled ‘Three Theories of Despair: the Confucian, the Catholic and the Freudian’, having previously been awarded a Bachelor of Law by Cambridge University] and closely followed the Sino-British negotiations over the future of the territory and became a frequent commentator in both the Chinese and English-language press. For a time, she was even the deputy editor of the prestigious Ming Pao Monthly magazine.


When Ng published that other essay in December 1983, Sino-British deliberations over the fate of the territory were settled and it was known that, in 1997, the territory would come under the sway of the People’s Republic of China. Apart from those who chose to emigrate, quite a large number of others were, as they psychologically prepared themselves for the inevitable, were also thinking of various ways to preserve those very things that made life in Hong Kong possible, as well as aspects of life that they treasured in particular such as certain fundamental rights and legal autonomy. This is the backdrop against which Ng’s essay ‘The Choice Before Us: Compromise or Determined Resistance’ appeared. It was a time in which many were hopeful that something that was spoken of as a ‘democratic repatriation’ would be possible.

[Note: This was during the ‘honeymoon’ phase of Beijing’s ‘Open Door and Economic Reform’ era under the triumvirate of Deng Xiaoping-Hu Yaobang-Zhao Ziyang.]


By contrast, Margaret Ng enjoined on her readers a clear-eyed perspective on a more distant future. People had to accept the unavoidable fact that, once Hong Kong came under the sway of the Beijing, they would all be Chinese citizens living under the tutelage of the Communist Party. Under no circumstances should they fool themselves into believing that they would truly be living in an environment in which ‘Hong Kong People Administer Hong Kong’ [as the Communists repeatedly assured them throughout the 1980s and 1990s], or that after 1997 the place would actually enjoy a ‘High Level of Autonomy’ [similarly claimed by Beijing and its surrogates in Hong Kong]. That was because, Ng emphasised, for the Communists power was the be-all and end-all; it was not something that could possibly be ceded to anyone else. The Communists, she told her readers, had never practiced any recognisable form of democratic governance, at most they propounded a sham labelled ‘democratic dictatorship’.

[Note: The ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’, enshrined in both the original 1954 and the revised 1982 Chinese constitution, claims that the vast majority of citizens of China’s People’s Republic enjoy ‘democracy’ while an extreme minority needs to be subjected to ‘dictatorship’. That is to say, the Communist party-state represents and acts on behalf of the People, while employing a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to repress all forms of reaction, thereby preventing a return to the so-called ‘bourgeois dictatorship’ of the past and the negation of the Communist Party’s version of socialism.]


That is why, Ng went on to argue, the only ‘way out’ for Hong Kong was independence. She did observe, however, that:

‘all of those who are proposing various clashing models for the future governance of Hong Kong do, nonetheless, share one thing in common, and they make a point of stating upfront, that is: “Of course, Hong Kong could never be independent.” In other words, although there is a widespread awareness of the concept of Hong Kong independence as such, equally common is a shared fear about even discussing it.’

According to her analysis at the time, Hong Kong already enjoyed all but one of the key elements that could make independence viable. The single caveat was that ‘China simply won’t allow it’.



When Local Press [a new independent media outlet advocating Hong Kong identity] reprinted Ng’s essay four years ago, the author remarked that at the time of its original publication [in late 1983] not a single person had reacted or taken up a discussion of her proposal.


I lived through that same period [in the 1980s] when there was a considerable debate about and resistance to the idea of a ‘return’ [to the Mainland. Note: the ‘return’ of Hong Kong to ‘the motherland’ was a blatantly anachronistic propaganda formulation since Hong Kong, and the New Territories, had been ceded to the United Kingdom by the Qing Empire in the nineteenth century and, therefore, as such the colony could only rightfully be ‘returned’ to the (now-long-defunct) Qing government. It could, however, dutifully be ‘handed over’ to the Chinese People’s Republic, a polity that only dates from 1949]. I experienced for myself the widespread lack of interest in the issue. After that, Margaret Ng turned her energies to the law and legal matters. With the formal establishment of the One Country, Two Systems governance framework [from 1 July 1997] she was singularly devoted to preserving the rule of law in Hong Kong. As a member of the Legislative Council [as I pointed out in ‘The End of Hong Kong’s Third Way’] she abstained from a vote [on a motion advanced by the then Chief Executive C.Y. Leung] related to Taiwan Independence. She did so not as an expression either of her support for or opposition to the issue itself, but because abstaining from a vote reflected her strict adherence to appropriate role and mandate enjoyed by members of the Legislative Council. On the Fulcrum, the autobiographical account of the eighteen years that Margaret Ng spent on Hong Kong legislature, offers in great detail the considerable lengths she went to in her support of the legal proprieties possible under the One Country, Two Systems framework. In that book she observed:

‘Neither optimism nor pessimism is a meaningful concept for me. The fact of the matter is that Hong Kong is my home. I decided to stay here [after 1997] and that’s why I am determined to do my utmost for this place.’


In her youth, when hardly anyone spoke about being ‘patriotic’, Margaret Ng declared her ‘love for China’. When she developed a mature understanding of China, she devoted herself instead to protecting Hong Kong. At a time when nobody was talking about ‘Hong Kong Independence’, she challenged the greatest taboo of all by talking about it. Later, following the cession of sovereignty to the Mainland, Ng worked tirelessly on behalf of the legal system of Hong Kong.


The arrest of Margaret Ng on 18 April 2020 was something she had an intimation of all the way back in 1983. The Chinese Communists have used their Hong Kong surrogates [that is the administration of the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam] to prove yet again that under the auspices of totalitarian rule there is absolutely no place for true ‘patriots’, for people who really love Hong Kong, or for those who have and do devote themselves fully to maintaining government under One Country, Two Systems.





Below we offer the text of ‘The Forked Path: Compromise or Defiance’ 妥協與頑抗——擺在眼前的路 by Margaret Ng. It was originally published in the December 1983 issue of Ming Pao Monthly 明報月刊 and reprinted by Local Press 本土新聞 on 16 July 2016.

In light of recent developments, and of Lee Yee’s observations in the above, perhaps Ng’s essay could be subtitled ‘Chronicle of an Arrest Foretold’.

— Ed.

Source: Local Press, 16 July 2016





編按:今天港獨議題甚囂塵上,其實討論仍是晚了三十三年 。早在一九八三年,吳靄儀博士已發表過以「港獨」作為香港出路的文章,本刋為此專訪了吳靄儀博士,她指這文章出來後,沒有任何人回應過。我們感謝《明報月刋》授權轉載《妥協與頑抗:擺在眼前的路》一文。