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Hong Kong Book Fair

Chinese war reporter who worked in Middle East sees lessons for Hong Kong in its push for democracy

Shanghai native claims lessons are available from other countries’ setbacks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 July, 2017, 9:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 July, 2017, 6:09pm

Residents of one of the safest cities in the world might find it hard to imagine living in a war zone, except for viewing horrifying news images.

Hong Kong-based war reporter Zhou Yijun knows the horror first-hand from covering conflicts in the Middle East and believes other countries’ upheaval could offer valuable lessons for the city in the push for greater democracy.

Promoting her new book, A Portrait of Revolution, Zhou shared her experiences and thoughts after working in some of the world’s most devastated areas, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Libya.

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In 2002, she was posted to the Gaza Strip as a correspondent for Xinhua to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During her two-year assignment, the veteran journalist witnessed numerous bomb attacks and said she narrowly escaped death many times.

“It’s hard to explain things there based on what I was told in the past,” she said. “For example, we believe in China that good people should be rewarded. But in reality, war is indiscriminate towards everyone, whether you’re good or evil.”

The Shanghai native said vanity and ego had driven her to become a war reporter, but she admitted that motivation receded when she realised death could come quickly.

Zhou recalled seeing a young boy hit by a bomb on his way to school; he died before her eyes as she was taking photos in hospital. Another time, a post office she was about to visit was blown up as she stood just a few hundred metres away. And the neighbourhood where her office building was located became a bombing target.

“Local residents had to deal with this situation every day, ” she said.

What is justice? There isn’t a black-and-white answer
Zhou Yijun

Aside from the physical danger Zhou experienced, the complexity of affairs in the Middle East changed her thinking.

“What is right? What is wrong? What is justice? There isn’t a black-and-white answer,” she concluded.

Zhou said some colleagues once criticised her stories for lacking a principled position on major contentious issues. But she countered that the truth could be found in a “grey area”.

In 2006, she joined Phoenix Satellite Television and moved to Hong Kong, where she had a closer look of a different kind of revolution.

The social and political movements in the city took place in a very different landscape, she said, featuring people’s pursuit of greater freedom and democracy.

“Hong Kong is better qualified for democracy than any other Chinese communities,” she claimed, citing its well-developed economy, highly educated residents and mature legal system.

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But she believed the city’s challenges were rooted in the fact that power resided not in the hands of the people and that its destiny was tied up with that of mainland China.

“There is little chance for Hongkongers to achieve what they want if there is no democracy in China.”

Like the Occupy movement of 2014, many democratic movements in the Arab world did not deliver tangible improvement, she said, with conservative authorities still holding sway.

However, Zhou believed setbacks would prompt those advocating change to learn from other countries’ successful experiences and leave them better prepared for future campaigns.