Pioneer of Hong Kong civil society furthers the cause of social justice
Gary Cheung lauds the contribution of a group of liberal-minded young professionals who today, 40 years on, occupy positions of influence in society
Forty years ago this month, a group of liberal-minded intellectuals and young professionals set up an organisation with a rare mission at the time - to organise activities to "participate in the governance of Hong Kong". Revisiting the history of the organisation, which could have been the city's first political party, will give us food for thought about the development of civil society.
The Hong Kong Observers, founded in 1975, aimed to "press and solicit the government of Hong Kong to be responsive to the needs of the people of Hong Kong" and "organise research of issues of public interests affecting Hong Kong". Topics ranged from the administration of justice in the colony to the development of representative government and Hong Kong's future.
The group's membership read like a who's who in Hong Kong. It included Anna Wu Hung-yuk, currently an executive councillor, journalist Frank Ching, politician Christine Loh Kung-wai, academic Joseph Cheng Yu-shek and Jack So Chak-kwong, currently chairman of the Airport Authority. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, then a young surveyor at Jones Lang Wootton, belonged to the group from 1980 to 1982.
The Observers was one of the few pressure groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s that dared to criticise the policies of the colonial government and direct public attention towards social injustice. The government was so worried by these "potentially subversive" groups that it set up a secret task force in 1978 to monitor them. Others on the surveillance list included the Society for Community Organisation and the Professional Teachers' Union.
A report compiled by the secret committee, the Standing Committee on Pressure Groups, noted that while there was no evidence that any of the groups had been "taken over" by "undesirable political factions", local or foreign, the "possibility of their developing into something more sinister" was disturbing.
On the Observers, the report said the group was able to significantly influence some parts of the community, especially expatriates and the Westernised middle class, through their well-researched articles, which appeared fortnightly in this newspaper. The report noted that it might develop into a political party.
In a position paper the Observers took to Beijing for talks with officials in December 1983, the group backed China's resumption of Hong Kong sovereignty after 1997 and Beijing's policy of turning Hong Kong into a special administrative region. Its stance was welcomed by Beijing, as most of the business and professional elite had reservations about the central government's ability to maintain the city's prosperity after 1997.
But the group stressed that the future political system needed a government that was accountable to Hong Kong people and returned by free elections.
The Observers also emphasised that the success of "one county, two systems" would hinge on the confidence of Hong Kong people in the Chinese government. "Such confidence is directly related to Hong Kong people's perception of China's political and economic developments and the possibility of China interfering with Hong Kong's internal affairs," it said.
Thirty years on, its warning sounds prophetic, given the growing apprehension about Beijing's high-handed approach towards Hong Kong.
The Observers disbanded in the mid-1990s because of a rift among members on whether the group should evolve into a political party. But the valuable contribution to Hong Kong by these young professionals, with their altruism and willingness to step beyond their comfort zones, needs to be remembered.
Gary Cheung is the Post's political editor