Mainlanders rally behind Hong Kong's freedoms

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am

There was good news recently for anyone in Hong Kong who believes in the 'one country, two systems' concept, which is supposed to underline the functioning of the special administrative region. Lamentably, government officials are unlikely to join the celebrations; if I'm wrong, they have been remarkably successful in obscuring their joy.

So what was worth celebrating? At the end of last week, a group of 30 mainland petitioners came to Hong Kong to protest against eviction from their homes in Shanghai. They assembled peacefully outside the central government's liaison office and came away in a state of amazement: they were not harassed or even arrested. One of them, Li Guozheng, declared that she had 'never felt so free and safe in my life as I am here in Hong Kong, where police do not beat up protesters'.

Not only did they emerge unscathed from their protest, but they were joined by a local lawmaker - unthinkable on the mainland. Hong Kong triumphantly asserted itself as a place where freedom of expression prevails. In other words, the 'other system' is not only alive and flourishing, but recognised by ordinary Chinese citizens as an alternative to the repression found at home.

The other notable demonstration, last Sunday, was far bigger - numbering some 1,000 participants - but, in some ways, more complex because it involved gay and lesbian people celebrating their identity. They were not protesting as such, instead making a loud public display of their right to proclaim their sexuality and gain acceptance for it. There had never before been a demonstration of this kind in Hong Kong. The participants reported a high level of co-operation from the police and a good reception from passers-by in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai.

The local demonstrators were joined by a significant number of participants from the mainland who came because there was no way they could take part in an event of this kind at home, where persecution of homosexuals still exists, although it is less commonplace than it once was.

Hong Kong only decriminalised sexual activity between consenting males in 1991 (same-sex activity between females was never illegal - go figure). Although the SAR has still to catch up with many parts of the world in giving legal recognition to same-sex partnerships, there is clearly a much higher level of acceptance of homosexuality here. Crucially, the gay and lesbian community felt secure enough to have launched the kind of gay parade that is pretty mainstream in cities like Sydney, London and Buenos Aires.

The event was only marred by the bigotry of those who preside over the Citybus company. They declined to rent a bus to the parade's organisers, self-righteously declaring that this was a 'commercial decision' designed to protect the company's image. Hopefully, Hongkongers will find a way of expressing contempt for such a company.

There have been some suggestions that the gay parade was a watershed for a Chinese society, but this is not so because activities of this kind have been held a number of times in Taiwan. Political correctness prevents some people from recognising that Taiwan has not only benefited from a far more open political system - and that significant beneficial social consequences have flowed from this opening of society - but the facts speak for themselves.

So Hong Kong has much to celebrate, but it is more than curious that government officials remain coy about joining the celebrations. Indeed, the only senior official I have ever heard who consistently speaks about the key role of freedom of expression - and the contrast with the situation across the border - is Mike Rowse, the newly retired head of InvestHK, an organisation dedicated to securing a flow of investment from overseas. His enthusiasm for Hong Kong's freedom of speech plays well in the international business community, a point that is worth noting.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur