|We Deserve Better
Hong Kong Since 1997
See the Contents and read extracts from all chapters
(totalling around 10% of the book)
Listen to the author on a Hong Kong radio talk show
Buy the book from:
(Best for HK; will courier overseas)
Amazon US, Amazon UK
and Barnes & Noble, etc
(Maybe. Ask nicely if out of stock.)
Contact the author
Rambling away since 2002
|An interview by a friendly journalist|
|First of all, why did you write this book?
Lame question! Basically, the tenth anniversary of the handover was coming up. I had masses of notes and clippings from the past decade or so, and I knew the government and Beijing would put on a fairly cringe-making campaign about what a massive success it’s all been, how we’re integrating with the motherland and so on. I also knew that the overseas press in particular would do interviews with the usual pro-democratic figures and get the usual ranting about damage inflicted on the rule of law, freedom of the press and of course universal suffrage. So I thought I’d do my own take on it.
OK, so the government is going to emphasize the positive during the tenth anniversary. But the fact is that Hong Kong since 1997 really has been a success in many ways hasn’t it? There were all sorts of people saying it wouldn’t work, ‘the death of Hong Kong’, all that sort of thing.
I never had any doubts that the doomsday scenarios before 1997 were silly. I didn’t blame people for emigrating and getting a new passport to be safe. But quite a few people – I guess it helped to already have a passport – never bought those predictions. For several years I worked in a company in a fairly sensitive industry and all sorts of people, including some staff, were wondering if the company would be allowed to carry on. We had to produce evidence and arguments that everything would be OK, and it wasn’t hard. The clincher, for me, was the incredibly thorough nitpicking of Chinese officials during negotiations with the British on all sorts of obscure details and points. It was obvious they were going to stand by the deal.
But that’s not what I’d call a success. You can’t say it’s a success just because some bad things didn’t happen. We still have our rights and freedoms – but that should be a given, not a cause to celebrate. Look at all the things that could have been fixed in the last ten years but haven’t been: the land policy, cartels, pollution, and at the bottom of it all, the political structure. These things are reducing Hong Kong’s potential. That’s not a success.
You’re very critical about those things, but did the British do any better before 1997?
They weren’t brilliant, but they wouldn’t have let tycoons increase their grip on policymaking. I think they would have kept the government neutral, not favouring particular industries, and not letting government become a sort of separate interest group in its own right. But even if the quality of governance had continued at exactly the same level, that’s not good enough. Public expectations are higher. Pollution is rising. Building density is getting more and more ridiculous. The economy is getting more distorted, the wealth gap increasing. Just because the British didn’t fix problems doesn’t mean you’re doing just as well as they did by not fixing them either – I mean what kind of argument’s that?
And of course that’s one of the arguments the ‘anti-democrats’ like to use – the British didn’t introduce democracy.
They don’t seem to use that line so much now. The British obviously should have opened the system up in the 1980s or earlier, but they didn’t because of Beijing. In a way, people who use that argument are confirming that Beijing is the reason we can’t have universal suffrage.
Is it Beijing? Or is it the local tycoons?
The local tycoons – especially the property cartel – have a lot to gain from keeping the current system. So does the bureaucracy. Beijing is no doubt receptive to their arguments against democracy. But there’s a difference between political reform and universal suffrage. A one-party state will not allow universal suffrage. It can’t – it wouldn’t be a one-party state any more.
You’re absolutely positive about that – that Hong Kong cannot have universal suffrage?
Oh yes, it’s pretty clear if you read between the lines of what Beijing has been saying. They might one day allow everyone to vote for the chief executive. They’ll call it universal suffrage. But they’ll choose who it is we’ll vote for. So long as the communist party is in power, they will never leave it to chance. So Beijing is the reason we can’t have universal suffrage. Now, they might accept other forms of political reform. But no-one’s asking for that. The pro-democrats insist on full democracy, nothing else. So Beijing is the reason we can’t have full democracy. But the pro-democrats are at least partly the reason we’re stuck with this rotten political structure.
Are you saying the pan-democrats should cooperate with the sort of minor reforms Donald Tsang has proposed in the past?
Not really, because those proposals are simply intended to counter a demand for universal suffrage. If people demanded structural reforms specifically aimed at reducing the power of the tycoons and bureaucrats, rather than the idealistic universal suffrage, it would change the debate entirely. The existing power holders would have to defend the existing system and all the favouritism and distortions it produces. That’s much harder than thinking up excuses to delay full democracy – which you’re not going to get anyway.
|What are the alternatives? The Singapore model?
No, obviously that wouldn’t work in Hong Kong. It doesn’t work in Singapore actually. It’s about opening up the system to allow a broader range of people to take part. Those people have to be trusted by Beijing but not part of the government-tycoon... what’s the word? ...cabal. Like the traditional patriots. The DAB, if it can make itself more middle class, more policy-oriented, might have an opportunity. Maybe some moderate professionals who keep their distance from the pro-democrats. Maybe some pro-democrats will defect, get co-opted. If the bureaucrats and tycoons had to share power with people like that, we’d be better off.
Yes, in the book you mention quite a lot how the old-style patriots are excluded from the halls of power.
They don’t appear much in English-language commentary on Hong Kong except as loyal cheerleaders for Beijing. But the fact is that they are just as excluded from power as the middle class pro-democrats. And the replacement of Tung, a tycoon, with Tsang, a colonial civil servant, underlined that. Now what do these guys do to relieve the frustration and keep themselves occupied? They spend their time baiting the opposition pro-democrats. Some of them are seriously spiteful and insulting towards people who have the backing of over 60% of the population. It’s supposed to be united front tactics, but it makes the community much more polarized.
What was the worst time in the last ten years? Sars, I guess.
I suppose so.
Though you know that disease killed fewer people than would normally die in road accidents over that time – something like that.
Well, it was scary. You don’t have a million people scrapping plans to visit Hong Kong because they might be in a car crash here. The mask-wearing and everything was irrational. It made people feel better. I’m one of the few who didn’t wear one. But the whole thing about Sars is that it was almost the culmination of all the disasters we had under Tung Chee-hwa. Just when you thought, ‘no way could it get any worse,’ and this deadly virus from civet cats comes along, and there’s no cure. And there was the symbolism about it coming from the mainland. The atmosphere reminded me of the days after Tiananmen [June 4, 1989 massacre] when there were rumours of tanks assembling just over the border in Shenzhen. I know one couple who said, ‘right that’s it, we’re emigrating.’ I’ll never forget a former colleague when I bumped into her sometime after Sars. It was in a Starbucks, and she’s sort of semi-famous, so people often point at her and she always looks totally calm and collected. Anyway, we were chatting about the way Hong Kong had been going, and this look of complete bewilderment came over her face, and she said, ‘Do you get the feeling that everything’s, like... going wrong?’
I guess the best time would have been the departure of Tung.
Probably, though the government backing down on the Article 23 law after the 7-1 march was a delight to behold.
Things are a lot better now. The later chapters in your book about 2006, 2007 are not boring exactly, but they’re not as interesting as the earlier ones.
Less interesting times, that’s true. And the economic cycle is right. The problem now in Hong Kong is not incessant disasters but this policy stagnation. Nothing can change. We have to go on trying to attract more and more mainland tourists. We have to go on trying to keep the container port competitive. We have to go on building more and more pointless roads and bridges, more monster towers right in the densest areas, let more and more traffic on the roads. We have to go on with the government accumulating more and more reserves for no reason, keeping land in short supply, forcing people to live in tiny homes, keeping the cartels fat. It’s moronic. Donald’s a Catholic right? But he doesn’t seem to believe in free will. The government’s not buffoonish any more, but we’re now run by grey bureaucrats who can’t imagine new ways of doing things and who are influenced by people who have a vested interest in avoiding change. It’s just as bad as Tung in the long run, and less entertaining.
I think I spotted a typo.
You’re wonderful! Thanks so much for that.