No meddling?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2012, 12:00am


In 10 days, Hong Kong will mark the 15th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule and its return to Chinese sovereignty. Many who thought Hong Kong's rights and freedoms would be curtailed have been proved wrong.

'Beijing has left little doubt that it will strip Hong Kong of its liberties,' The New York Times said in an editorial on January 30, 1997, 'even if that diminishes the economic benefits of the transfer to China.'

That sentiment was widely shared in Hong Kong. Many feared that newspapers would be shut down, films critical of China would not be shown and, of course, the annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square protests would no longer be held. Thus, weeks before the handover, labour activist Han Dongfang said the candle-light vigil in Victoria Park that year might be the last. 'The question is how many people will continue to speak out without being afraid,' he said.

That question has been answered. In 1997, 55,000 people took part in the vigil. A year later, when to the surprise of many the commemoration was still allowed to be held, 40,000 people showed up despite a heavy downpour.

Then, 1999 marked the 10th anniversary and there was a big turnout, with more than 70,000 people crowding into Victoria Park.

In 2009, the 20th anniversary, a record 150,000 paid homage to those who had died. That number held steady for the next two years until, this month, 180,000 people joined the rally.

The figures, of course, are the ones used by the organisers, and the police consistently cite substantially lower estimates. But even the police put the 2010 figure at 115,000 - the biggest rally ever, far bigger than the first one in 1990, which the police put at 80,000.

So there is little doubt that, 15 years into Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong people are not afraid to speak out.

In fact, many more of them do so than before, and even more loudly. This is a tribute to the success of 'one country, two systems'.

But there is also the question of autonomy. There, the picture is decidedly mixed.

Fifteen years after the policy of 'Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong' was instituted, Hong Kong people still do not have the right to vote for those charged with administering Hong Kong.

Zhou Nan , the last head of the New China News Agency before the handover, said in a pre-retirement interview with Wen Wei Po that the agency would not meddle in the territory's internal affairs after the handover.

However, now renamed the liaison office of the central people's government, the agency today is widely believed to be deeply involved in the city's internal affairs, including lobbying for pro-establishment candidates and giving advice to the chief executive on who to pick as members of his governing team.

So, 'one country, two systems' has not failed. But freedoms alone are not enough. There also needs to be genuine autonomy.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1