Tsang Tak-sing, the unrepentant youth activist made good
Once upon a time, Tsang Tak-sing was an idealistic young lad who dared to challenge the establishment – and to this day he is unabashed about the anti-British activism that landed him in jail.
It could not have been more ironic, in that light, that he was criticised more than four decades later for doing “inadequate work” as home affairs minister among Hong Kong’s youth, a factor Beijing officials blamed for spawning the student-led Occupy protests last year.
In a bombshell dropped on Tuesday, Tsang will be replaced as secretary for home affairs as rumours swirl that both Beijing and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying are unhappy with his performance.
That might have been an unfortunate fall from grace, given Tsang had a delayed start on the career ladder compared to his peers because of the jailing. Had the anti-British disturbances of 1967 not broken out, he might not have been galvanised into distributing leaflets against colonial rule – for which he was arrested – and his life would have taken a completely different path.
But Tsang had “always been aware of injustices in Hong Kong society”, according to an interview the city’s future chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang did at Stanley Prison in 1968.
He told Li, then a summer intern at the regional magazine Far Eastern Economic Review: “I recall vividly one incident that left a deep impression on me. One day after school, I saw a policeman overturn a hawker’s [cart of] tomatoes and then stamp on them deliberately.
“Then look at our youth; they are going the decadent way, following the Beatles. When the disturbances broke out, I felt I must do something. I met a girl I knew on the day of the Garden Road incident [in Mid-Levels on May 22, 1967]. She told me how revolted she was by the police’s unreasonable beatings. After this, I was even more convinced I was right.”
Li later concluded from this personal encounter: “He has examined things for himself and concluded Hong Kong is decadent, a city where everyone makes money as fast as they can. Sickened by his views of the colony, he opted for communism and an anti-government movement.”
Twenty-nine years on in 1997, Li was appointed chief justice and remained Hong Kong’s top judge until 2010.
As an 18-year-old schoolboy, Tsang was by no means a usual suspect in anti-colonial activities, unlike his counterparts at traditionally pro-Beijing schools.
Instead, he was an outstanding pupil at the prestigious St Paul’s College in Mid-Levels, which had been a cradle for the pro-establishment elite. He could have gone on to further studies in the United States, joined the colonial government or become a professional, just like his classmates did.
It was 1967, when Tsang was reaching Form Seven, just a year away from his expected entrance to the University of Hong Kong.
During the era of elitist education when only an eighth of primary-school leavers had access to secondary education, those who enrolled in St Paul’s were by and large guaranteed places at HKU, the city’s sole tertiary institution at the time.
But the political upheavals of his day brought the city to a standstill and Tsang, like many others disenchanted with their colonial masters, became critical of the system.
“The teaching methods of teachers at my school were quite simplistic and straightforward. They taught in English, but many of them had inadequate proficiency in English,” he said.
“They could not give lessons in English fluently and even mispronounced some English words. Some teachers simply copied their teaching notes onto the blackboards right from the moment they walked into the classroom.”
Tsang’s sense of alienation from the establishment – and sympathy for leftist protesters – mounted following an outbreak of the anti-British movement at Hong Kong Plastic Flower Work in San Po Kong on May 6, 1967.
“I spotted a photograph published in a newspaper featuring a group of students who expressed solicitude to workers at the factory. The riot police fired tear gas at them, but they still held hands together. I was very impressed by that photo,” he said.
That summer, he discussed with like-minded classmates their action plans in support of the leftists. The lover of Ian Fleming’s tales about James Bond and novels written by American humorist Mark Twain then went on to stage anti-British campaigns.
The turning point came on September 28, when Tsang, wearing his prefect tie as usual, worked with other classmates to distribute 375 anti-British leaflets in classrooms during lunchtime.
He was arrested after the school management reported to police, and was prosecuted for “distributing inflammatory leaflets”. Those other classmates got off scot-free, though, because they were not identified. Some later went for overseas studies.
With a lawsuit looming, Tsang received no support from the leftist camp as he did not have close connections with it.
He opted for self-defence in court, not having the means to hire a lawyer. “What I said [in the leaflets] was true and did not constitute sedition,” he told the court at the time.
The judge handed down a two-year jail term, a sentence Tsang could not reconcile with, saying he was simply acting to “seek justice” and had not taken instructions from others.
His father did not intercede with the judge, who asked whether he had anything to say before handing down the judgment. He was “proud of what my son did”, Tsang senior told the judge.
In retrospect, Tsang maintained: “Some people may not agree with my views but from today’s perspective, what I did in 1967 was just an exercising of my freedom of expression.”
But the price he paid was heavy. Tsang served 18 months behind bars, forgoing a university education and the smooth path to success he could have enjoyed.
“My parents were very sad about my imprisonment,” he said. “They had wanted to send me to an English school to ensure a bright future. You have to bear in mind that those were the days when you couldn’t apply for a home phone if you did not understand English. Nobody would bother to answer your enquiry if you could not write an English letter.”
At Stanley Prison, Tsang was assigned to so-called YP cells for young prisoners, where he kept company with more than 30 other inmates. “There was no protection of inmates’ rights. Prisoners being beaten up by prison officers were everyday facts of life,” he said.
He was spared the wardens’ beatings, though, probably because of his schoolboy looks.
Despite not having helped with his lawsuit, the leftist camp hailed Tsang’s deeds as “brave” and “righteous”; the pupil from the elite school “rising up against” the colonial administration was of huge propaganda value for Beijing-loyalist newspapers.
Tsang gave a more vivid explanation of his leaning towards leftist ideals and the anti-British movement in his 1968 interview with Li, who was then studying at Cambridge University.
Tsang recalled that Li told him he was on leave from Cambridge to do a project.
“It was 1968, the year that saw a climax in student movements around the world. Li told me his class was instructed by their professor to do a project to study this worldwide phenomenon of student movements. Some of his classmates had gone to France and some to the US, and he took the opportunity to return home to find out about the Hong Kong movement.”
Li sounded sympathetic towards Tsang and other prisoners from the leftist camp. “These youngsters are moved by high ideals, however misconceived. They are angry as what they regard as an unhealthy community,” Li wrote.
“Hong Kong should take note of the fact that the community cannot contain its romantic idealists and some of them have taken to communism. The colony ought not to take refuge in the theory that all will be well as long as the economy prospers. Stanley Prison offers clear evidence that some members of the community are not willing to live by bread alone.”
Tsang joined the Beijing-loyalist New Evening Post after walking free from prison in February 1969. He quickly became a rising star in the pro-Beijing media circles and was promoted to deputy news editor, news editor and then senior editor.
In 1988, Tsang became chief editor of Ta Kung Pao, another Beijing-loyalist newspaper.
He was appointed an adviser to the official think tank, the Central Policy Unit, in 1998 and became secretary for home affairs in 2007.
Because of the leaflet incident, Tsang missed the opportunity for university studies while many of his highly educated classmates rose to eminence, with some becoming senior officials and prominent academics.
That is all water under the bridge now, and Tsang emphasised he had no regrets for what he did in 1967. “I have nothing to repent of despite losing some time and opportunities. I have benefited all my life from what I learned in prison. I could not have learned those things elsewhere, let alone from books,” he said.
Reflecting on the 1967 anti-British disturbances, he insisted the episode was one of righteous resistance against colonial oppression launched by the patriotic masses, although certain acts of the leftists were somewhat excessive.
“It was stupid for some people from the leftist camp to plant bombs in the streets. Once you did that, others could follow suit,” he said. “Some friends from the leftist camp told me some bombs were planted by the colonial government in an attempt to put the blame on the leftist camp.
“Certain actions by some members of the leftist camp were obviously too drastic because many participants did not have any experience,” he said.
However, he was adamant the actions taken by the leftist camp were by and large correct. “I would not deny that some actions were stupid, unreasonable and too drastic. But you have to bear in mind that so many people took part in the movement. It was a legitimate resistance against colonial oppression and I think history should arrive at such a judgment.”
But Tsang disagreed with mainstream society’s labelling of the disturbances as an “ultra-left” uprising. “In Guangzhou, there is the Yellow Flower Cemetery where the 72 martyrs of the revolution led by Dr Sun Yat-sen were buried. That uprising proved to be premature and they were defeated and slaughtered,” Tsang said.
“In the sense that it failed, that uprising could be termed ‘ultra-left’ on the part of the Manchu leadership. But does it in any sense deny the honour that we bestow on the 72 martyrs?”