Describe the changes in Hong Kong over the past 10 years?
I don't see that many changes in the fundamentals of Hong Kong. Of course, we had the handover of sovereignty to China and, more recently, the first contested chief executive election involving a candidate from the democratic camp. Victoria Harbour is getting visibly narrower for sure. Society has progressed. But I still remember in 1997 - about six years after I was released on medical parole by the mainland authorities - my friends were trying to persuade me to leave Hong Kong. They feared I would be sent back to jail once Hong Kong became part of China. I did not heed their advice because I believe in the rule of law of Hong Kong. The city also weathered the Asian financial crisis, thanks to the efficiency of its institutions and people. So, in that sense, I think Hong Kong is still pretty much what it was 10 years ago in terms of its fundamentals. I do note an increase in the city's interactions with the mainland. You can tell this just by the number of mainland enterprises listed in Hong Kong. But we could have a lot more interaction on the political front. We could have done better in this area.
Tell us more about your views on this interaction from your experience in promoting labour rights from here
The subject of mainland-Hong Kong relations is an interesting one. It is far more interactive and dynamic than people could imagine. The controversies over attempts [in 2003] to legislate on Article 23 of the Basic Law is a classic example of the complexity of the interactions. Beijing had started off with very little appreciation of what I call the inner strength of the people of Hong Kong and its civil society. That was why it was caught completely off guard by the strong opposition to the proposed law [to ban treason, secession and subversive acts]. The shelving of the legislation was a compromise. But the incident was a milestone in mainland-Hong Kong relations. It was a lesson for leaders in Beijing, telling them they could not impose their will on the city and its people.
So Hong Kong's civil society has become more important in mainland-Hong Kong interactions since the row over Article 23?
Yes, there is evidently greater respect for the views of Hong Kong and its people. Previously, because the Hong Kong government had cast itself in a certain role, Beijing had more or less thought it could impose its decisions on Hong Kong, just like as a grandfather to his grandson.
What are the changes on the mainland since 1997 that have affected your work?
The mainland itself has experienced very significant changes over the past five to six years. The Communist Party is losing control as state-owned enterprises continue to undergo structural reforms. Corruption is getting out of hand. Tens of millions of workers have lost their jobs and, in the process of these changes, many workers are beginning to be aware of their rights and the need to protect them. Unlike [the political movements] in the past, actions now anchor on something more practical. Workers are concerned about rights issues that have to do with their livelihood. They are no longer shouting empty slogans, but taking concrete action to defend their rights. In this respect, we are witnessing the development of civil society on the mainland. This is how my work [through the China Labour Bulletin and Free Radio Asia] comes into play. It is estimated that the radio now has an audience of 20 million throughout the mainland.
In a way, what you are doing has gone against Beijing's warning that 'the water in the well doesn't try to tamper with the water in the river', in a bid to stop any attempts by Hong Kong people to overturn the mainland's communist system in 1989. Have you come under any pressure to stop?
In fact, the warning itself is based on a flawed presumption that the conditions in the 'river' would remain unchanged. But this is impossible. We have achieved what we have by keeping our work in tune with the development of the country. Because of the reform of the state-owned enterprises, many workers were made redundant without compensation. Peasants lost their land - and their means of livelihood. In desperation, they have come to a realisation of the need to defend their rights. It is this development on the mainland that has generated a demand for our service. We are leading the workers and peasants to pursue their rights through the legal system. We think the future of China lies in development through institutional means such as the rule of law. We should not go back to the ancient way of overturning a regime through peasants' uprising. If we do, we are letting history repeat itself and there will be no room for democracy to prosper.
Do you regard yourself as continuing the pro-democracy movement left uncompleted in 1989?
Democracy to me is a process rather than the ends. We are all working to promote the progress of democracy in our own capacity. For the Communist Party, the question of survival is also high on its agenda. There is a need to find a way to accommodate the aspirations of the country's 1.3 billion people. I don't mind whether or not I see democracy in China in my lifetime, or whether we take the US or other routes of democracy.
Has any progress been made so far?
Yes, we have made many big strides in the past decade. We had never imagined China Labour Bulletin could go so far as to assist mainland workers in fighting for their rights in the mainland courts. And we did all this openly. When we were contemplating the move in 2002, we were a little hesitant for fear that this could add to instead of help resolve the agony of the workers. But when we went ahead and hired a lawyer to assist workers in a Hubei knitting factory, there was no intervention from the authorities. We realised then that it was a new way to assist the workers, as long as we adhered to the law and followed the mainland's legal system.
Have the Hong Kong authorities interfered in what you are doing?
No. When my friends tried to talk me into quitting Hong Kong in 1997, I said to myself that I had to prepare for the worst if I stayed. What is the worst scenario? Going to jail. But at least jails in Hong Kong are better than those on the mainland. At the end of the day, I still have a lot of confidence in the rule of law of Hong Kong.
Where do you see yourself in another 10 years?
I will definitely be back on the mainland. I am hopeful that I'll be able to return by the time I'm in my 50s. [Mr Han is 43.] China is changing and I think I have positioned myself correctly in the past 14 years. It is quite inconceivable that in 10 years' time, I'd still be unable to return to the mainland.
Do you consider yourself a Hongkonger or mainlander after living here for 14 years?
I am a person and would like to be a useful and happy person. My country of origin or nationality is not a matter of concern. Hong Kong is where I have spent the most time by far - even longer than in my birthplace, Beijing. Legally I am a Hongkonger. I quite like this because the HKSAR passport is convenient for travel. I want to go back to the mainland not because I am Chinese but because it is where I can engage in the work I like and enjoy doing.