A colony's example

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 October, 2010, 12:00am

Ever since he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo has come under severe criticism both in China and overseas for being a 'racist' and for 'supporting all-out Westernisation'.

Such denunciations are based on an interview he gave in 1988 to Kaifang (Open) magazine. Asked what conditions China needed to bring about genuine transformation, he answered that Hong Kong became what it is after 100 years of colonisation and China, being much bigger, needed 300 years of colonisation.

The Global Times, in an editorial, alluded to this when it said that China would 'never be a sub-civilisation', but would follow its own road map to political reform.

Such critics, however, seem to forget what Sun Yat-sen, universally revered as the father of modern China, had to say about colonialism in Hong Kong, where he lived and studied for many years, first at Queen's College and then at the Hong Kong College of Medicine, the precursor of the University of Hong Kong.

Sun's views were expressed in a speech to the students' union of the university in February 1923. He was introduced by the union president, Edward Hotung, whose father, Sir Robert Hotung, had helped finance the revolution led by Sun, which led to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912.

Sun said he got his revolutionary ideas in 'this very place, in the colony of Hong Kong'. He said: 'Hong Kong impressed me a great deal, because there was orderly calm and because there was artistic work being done without interruption. I went to my home in Heungshan [now Zhongshan] twice a year and immediately noticed the great difference. There was disorder instead or order, insecurity instead of security.'

He went on: 'I compared Heungshan with Hong Kong and, although they are only 50 miles apart, the difference of the governments impressed me very much ... I began to wonder how it was that foreigners, that Englishmen could do such things as they had done, for example, with the barren rock of Hong Kong, within 70 or 80 years, while China in 4,000 years had no places like Hong Kong.'

Sun also found that government corruption was a rarity in Hong Kong, unlike 'in China, where corruption among officials was the rule'.

He found the situation in Canton, now Guangzhou, even worse. And in Peking, he 'found things there 100 times more corrupt and rotten than areas in Canton'.

While studying the principles of government, he learned that 'good governments in England and in Europe were not at first natural to those places', but Englishmen then decided they could no longer stand these things and so changed them.

Sun then asked himself: 'Why can we not change it in China? We must imitate the same thing; we must change the government first, before we can start anything.'

Clearly, Sun felt that the colonial government in Hong Kong was much better than any government in China. He did not say that China needed to be colonised - in fact, he excoriated foreign powers for treating China like a colony - but he obviously felt that there was much that China could learn from a colonial government.

Certainly, in 1997, when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, it immediately became the most modern city in China, where rule of law prevailed and citizens enjoyed rights and freedoms not available anywhere else in the country.

Indeed, only last week, a group of senior Communist party members published an open letter calling for freedom of speech, pointing out that citizens of the People's Republic of China have never had as much freedom of speech and of the press as that entrusted by the British 'to the residents of a colony'.

While calling for the colonisation of China may be going a bit far, it is evident that British colonialists created something in Hong Kong that China even today cannot match.

As Deng Xiaoping , China's chief architect of reform, used to say, one must seek truth from facts.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator