Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s first policy address ended with these words.
My vision is for a Hong Kong of hope and happiness – a city we are all proud to call home. I see a vibrant international metropolis that is just, civilised, safe, affluent, enjoys the rule of law compassionate and well-governed. To achieve this vision, we need to have a society that is united, harmonious and caring.
It was these words that resonated in my head yesterday, shortly after lunch, as I read breaking news of a very different nature. News that reflected a very different reality.
This is what I read first on the Hong Kong Cultural and Political Forum:
Breaking News! Leading human rights activist Benedict Rogers denied entry into Hong Kong during human rights visit.
Rogers, who lived in Hong Kong between 1997 and 2002, is the deputy chair of the Conservative party’s human rights commission and was travelling to Hong Kong in a private capacity to meet with friends. He was stopped at immigration and refused entry.
At a railway station I picked up a light blue leaflet. I got on a train at the back, and walked forward. I counted an average of two leaflets per carriage. Interestingly, it was almost only middle aged women who were reading them. I did not join them, but instead, like most young people around me, began reading from my phone.
As he was escorted to his flight out of Hong Kong, Rogers said he turned to the immigration officer taking him to the plane and thanked him for treating him so well.
“I said, ‘Does that mean one country, two systems is dead? Is it one country one system now?’”
“He looked at me actually very sadly, almost with tears in his eyes, and said, ‘I’m just doing my job, I can’t comment.’”
I recognised what Rogers described. Too many Hong Kong people have had reason to cry these past three years. I have cried. I have seen and spoken with police officers and pro-democracy protesters who have cried. I have seen tears well up at local school reunions as conversations turn to the future. I have had a research student cry as she told me how her parents had told both their daughters not to have children unless they could find a way to leave Hong Kong. There is so little hope in the future.
As Carrie Lam revealed the government’s new initiatives to address Hong Kong’s pressing livelihood issues — tax relief to small and medium sized enterprises; increase supply of Subsidised Home Ownership flats and introduce a “Starter Homes” scheme for middle class families; implement an improved Low-income Working Family Allowance — there was nothing said, let alone done, to address what has really sapped this city of its once famous spirit.
“I’m just doing my job, I can’t comment.”
In this line is said so much about what has gone wrong.
There is a rumour making the rounds in the city. I have heard it said quietly among women as they sip tea in hotel restaurants, and shouted aloud across the table as old men play cards in public housing estates. It is a ridiculous rumour, born out of empty reasoning. And yet it is a rumour that is reflective of the first part of this line.
The rumour is that growing inequality and the high property prices are a deliberate ploy by Beijing to break the political will of the Hong Kong people. When all that one can be is a job, there is little room for individual rights. Hard working people have little time for politics.
There is no spirit without hope. And there is no hope without freedom of expression. When we can no longer comment, when we have lost our voice, no one may listen. Our concerns go unaddressed, unrecognised and unheard.
Rogers had been warned in advance that he would not be welcomed. He was known to Beijing. He was one of the organisers of a widely circulated letter earlier this year denouncing the decision to reopen the case against the three student leaders: Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow. It was a letter signed by a swathe of dignitaries, including former UK Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and UN high representative in Bosnia Paddy Ashdown, co-chair of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China Christopher Smith, retired US Ambassador to the UK Grover Joseph Rees, and former Canadian Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific, member of parliament and Nobel peace prize nominee David Kilgour.
What ever one may think about the letter, it was a letter published in Britain where freedom of speech is respected. Not only did the letter not break any laws, it is in itself an expression of a right guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which both Britain and Hong Kong are legally bound.
Neither did the letter advocate sedition against Beijing, nor threaten national security. It stated:
We urge the international community to put pressure on the governments of the People’s Republic of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to respect the principles of “one country, two systems” and the Basic Law in Hong Kong.
Is not respecting the principles of One Country, Two Systems and the Basic Law what Beijing and the HKSAR government meant to do? Does not Beijing claim that these are privileges designed and granted by the CCP as a means to guarantee Hong Kong’s way of life is maintained for 50 years after the handover? And to take a different tack, is Beijing not legally bound by the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and international treaty registered with the UN, to abide by these principles and respect the law?
There is thus an internal contradiction in logic should Beijing consider this letter a reason to consider Rogers a threat. Indeed, a more sympathetic, harmonious and peaceful nation might actually welcome the reminder to uphold not only that which was agreed, but also that which the HKSAR government continues describe as fundamental to Hong Kong’s past and continuing success. After all, it was only in July that much fanfare was staged and every road lined with banners celebrating the success of 20 years of One Country Two System.
Many people have asked me for my thoughts on Carrie Lam’s administration. I have always replied that it is too early to say. Patience has become a rare commodity in our city’s politics; and there is for too much prejudice already. Yesterday was a day I had waited for with anticipation. I wanted to know what Hong Kong might expect from this government in terms of policy. This was the day Carrie Lam and our new government was meant to shine.
Instead, the day was defined not by clarity but by dark clouds. Rather than answers, Hong Kong people are left with yet more questions. Already more rumours abound. Sinister rumours of Beijing’s hand, as if to remind us all in whose hand are the puppet strings.
Once again I feel the real poverty that has stricken the people of Hong Kong. It is the sense that we must live our lives blind to only what we are allowed to know. Many of my friends feel, as I do, that we carry around with us each day a knife buried deep in our hearts. Already questions are being asked whose decision it was to bar Rogers, a private individual on a private visit to a city he knows well and had once lived? On what grounds was he barred? And if Beijing gave the order, on what grounds under the Basic Law was the intervention authorised?
What is most baffling is why, on a day that Carrie and many people in our government would have sincerely hoped would prove a landmark in rebuilding a “united, harmonious” society, was a political decision taken to upstage her, and remind us once more of how much our home has changed.
One rumour that will no doubt again be seeded, this time officially, will be that Rogers represents foreign interference. The implication will be that all dissent in Hong Kong is manufactured by foreign powers seeking to destabilise China, and that slogan central to CCP rule will again be rolled out: Wu Wang Guo Chi— Never Forget National Humiliation.
For chief executive Leung Chun-ying and lawmaker Regina Ip stated publicly that the 2014 Occupy protests and the Umbrella Movement were orchestrated by foreigners. They both said they had proof, and that they would make public. They never did. As with all rumours, speculation overrides facts. But this was enough to have patriots frothing in the mouth, and gave those needing a reason to believe in the establishment line just that.
Then there is the other rumour. One that swirls so vigorously in this city that too many we long ago tired of hearing it. It is the rumour that permeates every level of society, and has breached, sometimes in hushed tones, every bubble. The rumour is that it is really in Beijing’s interest that Hong Kong remains divided — that the respectability and moderation that once was a hallmark of our adversarial politics is gutted along with our distinct Chinese identity and city culture. The Peoples Republic of China is a society emerging from a trauma of its own making, unhindered by history or tradition. Perhaps for Hong Kong to truly love the nation, and to truly integrate with the motherland, we too must have our slate wiped clean.