Hong Kong must face up to communists in its midst

Stephen Vines calls for an honest reassessment of the 1960s riots

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2012, 3:43am

Peter Tsang Yu-hung has opened a can of worms by petitioning the chief executive to retrospectively overturn a conviction for illegal assembly in a public place that landed him in jail 45 years ago. Tsang's conviction was one of many made under emergency laws introduced to deal with the spillover in Hong Kong from the Cultural Revolution across the border.

The protests in Hong Kong turned ugly after a prominent journalist was murdered, and many people feared that a revolution would spread to the British colony. Public opinion was largely on the side of the authorities, who started a round-up of people connected with leftist organisations, including the schoolboys Peter Tsang and Tsang Tak-sing, now a government minister, who also served time in jail.

As ever, the authorities overdid things. Although there was a real threat to public security, there was a strong element of revenge in their response.

Peter Tsang's request raises the wider question of how the new Hong Kong administration and its guiding hand in Beijing should treat long-time allies who were either clandestine Communist Party members or sympathisers, a category that includes Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a student in the 1960s known for his anti-colonial views.

Party membership was illegal in those days and the party operated under the umbrella of the Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee, which embraced, among others, trade unions, newspapers, housing associations and schools, such as the one where Legislative Council president Tsang Yok-sing was principal.

During the war, it was the Communists who led the resistance to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, while the traditional elite collaborated with some vigour.

Not unreasonably, Hong Kong's leftists expected to be rewarded for their loyalty and efforts once Chinese sovereignty was resumed over the territory. But they were bitterly disappointed as the bosses in Beijing decided to bestow power and honours on those who had previously been stalwarts of the colonial regime.

The people in Beijing understood that the loyalty of long-time supporters could be taken for granted whereas the turncoats needed to be wooed. Moreover, China's general policy was to provide assurance to the still deeply suspicious people of Hong Kong that the new era would not be painted a deep shade of red.

Leung is the first chief executive with a leftist background but, like members of the clandestine Communist Party, declines to emphasise his previous loyalty.

Indeed, even now, the local Communist Party remains in the shadows and its members are often upset by being sidelined. Most of them have re-emerged in the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, but this organisation does its best to hide its communist origins because it remains nervous of public response to an openly communist entity.

However, this does not mean history cannot be reassessed. A start was made shortly after 1997 when a proper memorial was finally erected in memory of the communist fighters who died in the anti-Japanese struggle.

Now the legacy of the 1960s riots needs to be addressed. Peter Tsang and others like him understandably feel aggrieved and want the record put straight - or at least straight according to their point of view. This sends shivers down the spine of people like Leung who prefer to see history remain in the shadows.

However, a community that cannot be honest about its past cannot tackle the future. Leung knows this better than most because his leftist past keeps rearing its head. As in other matters, he declines to be straightforward about his own history and cannot be happy when people like Peter Tsang pop up with reminders.

Peter Tsang says his main offence was nothing more than being a pupil at a leftist school and that he did not break the law. These schools were the recruiting grounds for the rioters, but that does not mean all the pupils were law breakers. Surely the time has come to look squarely at this period of history and attempt an honest assessment of what really happened.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur