Hong Kong must get a real conversation going if it wants democracy
Jasper Tsang tells how his involvement in the early days of democratisation in Hong Kong has impressed on him the importance of dialogue across the political spectrum, particularly now
I never intended to become a politician. I never wanted to get involved in politics when I was in school. I went to the University of Hong Kong during the late 1960s, the years of Hong Kong's riots. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing and there were violent student movements worldwide. But even then, I was never a student activist.
When I finished my degree, I went to teach in a leftist school. But even then I had not intended to get involved in politics. I went to teach for practical, rather than ideological, reasons as I wanted to become a scientist and work in China. But the Cultural Revolution was going on. I never expected it to last 10 years. I was 30 when it was over and had forgotten almost everything I learned at university.
A few years later, China and Britain started to talk about Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, which led to the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. Extensive consultation exercises followed and many were involved.
I still remember when we could sit in roundtable discussions with people from different backgrounds and political beliefs, and officials from Beijing came and listened. There were democrats, businesspeople and moderates. I took part and, looking back, I'd say those were the best years of dialogue between Hong Kong people, Beijing and consultations with the public. We were able to narrow the gap gradually and we moved towards a consensus.
All of us believed that for "one country, two systems" to work, we must have a democratic system. That was the first consensus. At the same time, most of us believed we should move towards that goal in steps; we believed the benefits of the existing systems should be kept. Thus, we were able to narrow our gap and I'd say that a lot of the proposals and views of those taking part in the public discussions were incorporated in the final draft of the Basic Law.
Four years and eight months later, and suddenly, there was June 4 and everything stopped. And all those who were working together with Beijing to bring democracy to Hong Kong after 1997 suddenly turned against Beijing. And the Chinese officials who had come to Hong Kong regularly and talked to activists suddenly began to regard them as subversive. For the first time, Beijing called Hong Kong a base to subvert China. Of course, there were one million people marching and shouting slogans against the Chinese government. When the dust settled in Beijing, we became divided. Two camps emerged. If you're a politician in Hong Kong, you must belong to one of the two camps: you're either pro-Beijing or pro-democracy. That is the unfortunate situation that came from June 4 and has continued until today.
The first direct election for the Legislative Council took place in 1991, two years after Tiananmen. Three candidates with a pro-Beijing background stood. They all lost. All the headlines said that being a friend of Beijing was a kiss of death; no one who's seen to be a friend of Beijing could be trusted by Hong Kong people and they would not stand a chance in elections. That was the general belief.
Within the pro-Beijing camp, there were two schools of thought. Some saw the election results as strong proof that elections are not our game - they were not fair, as Beijing-friendly candidates would never get the support of voters.
Shortly after, Chris Patten came to Hong Kong and put forward his constitutional reform proposals. His package was said to contravene the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Basic Law and the mutual understanding between the two countries. Many in the pro-Beijing camp said we should scrap the Joint Declaration - we don't need elected legislators. Others, including myself, believed otherwise. The Basic Law specified that the final goal of our constitutional development was the legislature and the chief executive elected by universal suffrage. So we had to rally our forces and take part in popular elections.
As I saw it, the pro-Beijing candidates lost in the 1991 election not only because of June 4; they were also ill-prepared. What was needed was an election machinery, so we started to talk about forming a political party. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong [now the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong] was formed in 1992. Even when I took part in the preparations for forming the DAB, I had no intention to become a politician. I like talking, I don't like "walking"; I was happy to let others do that. I headed the preparatory group because I was a school principal and had the office support. But they asked me to become the chairman and I agreed. I like talking, and they wanted an advocate for the pro-Beijing camp.
I went to the first public forum as chairman of the DAB on July 11, 1992, and was booed after I was introduced. I also had to have an escort out after the debate. I guess that was when I became a politician. After that, I debated on a weekly basis with Martin Lee Chu-ming, Emily Lau Wai-hing and other well-known democrats.
I became a member of Legco after 1997 and my role as spokesman for Beijing continued in heated debates with the democrats, until I was elected Legco president in 2008. As president, I am not supposed to join in the debates. This has changed my perspective and mindset.
I have to communicate closely with various parties, as we need more understanding between us to make things work in Legco. The more I talk to various parties, the more I believe we should not divide our politicians into angels and demons. There is no reason for them to remain hostile to each other. I believe that all of us want "one country, two systems" to succeed and a democratic system of government to work; we will need the understanding of the central government to achieve these.
We may have different views on social and economic issues and public policies, but this is normal in any democratic society. So there is no need to fight each other as if we were enemies. The more I have communicated, the more I feel there needs to be dialogue among the groups themselves, and with the Chinese government and representatives of the Chinese government in Hong Kong.
The year 2010 was a make-or-break situation for our constitutional development. I was glad to see a deal was made. It came as a surprise. There was little mutual trust and it was a precarious situation. For now, we must work carefully. We've seen how the events of the chief executive election last year tore apart the pro-establishment camp. The wounds are still healing.
All these events have convinced me that the most important thing I can do is provide opportunities for various parties to sit down and have meaningful dialogue. I believe my current position gives me the chance to facilitate such dialogue. I hope that, in the crucial months ahead, I can contribute to Hong Kong's political development in this way. That is what politics is all about.
Jasper Tsang Yok-sing is president of the Legislative Council. This is an edited version of a recent speech he made at a speaker luncheon organised by the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation