By Mishi Saran

Whatever happens in Sunday’s election, Hong Kong citizens should seriously consider dusting off a short and sleek 1932 civil rights manifesto published in Shanghai by the China League for the Protection of Civil Rights, a group that included China’s intellectual giants such as writer Lu Xun, thinker Cai Yuanpei and academic Yang Xingfo, and was formed at the initiative of Sun Yat-sen’s widow Song Qingling. The League firmly backed China’s young Communist movement (so Beijing can hardly object) and the content will please Hong Kong’s young protestors.

The League, short-lived though it was, enjoyed support from all corners of China’s then wide-ranging political spectrum. It was a response to the ruling Guomindang’s crushing, often bloody, persecution of left-leaning intellectuals and anyone suspected of supporting the Communists.

The League demanded the release of all political prisoners and sought to expose civil rights violations — goals that mesh remarkably with the demands of Hong Kong’s modern protestors.

The manifesto was published nearly 87 years ago, in Shanghai’s wide-circulation newspaper the Shen Bao, on December 18, 1932. Here it is, as translated and reproduced, along with footnotes in The Chinese Human Rights Reader, Documents and Commentary 1900-2000 – a compendium published in 2001 and edited by Stephen C. Angle and Marina Svensson:

It is most painful that civil rights (minquan), which the Chinese people sought through the great sacrifice of revolution, have still not been realized. Newspaper accounts of [attempts to] control public opinion and of illegal arrests and massacres have practically become common sights. It has even gone so far that young boys and girls are sometimes suspected of being political criminals, after which they cannot avoid being secretly tried in military courts. Even if the trials were public, the minimal human rights (renquan) that the general will seeks from society in order to protect civil rights have already been lost. We profoundly understand that for this kind of situation to be effectively and completely reformed, we must work hard to change the environment that produced it. At the same time, we must also realize that all progressive countries have international organisations [devoted to the] protection of civil rights, such as [the organizations] led by [Albert] Einstein, Jueleisai, [John] Dewey, [Bertrand] Russell, and [Roman] Roland. The most important purpose of this kind of organization is to protect the freedoms of thought and society that are needed for human life and for social progress. Following this same reasoning, we propose the establishment of the China League for the Protection of Civil Rights. The aims of the League are:

  1. To fight for the release of all political prisoners in the country, and for the abolition of illegal arrests, torture and massacres. The League will, first of all, devote itself to the majority of prisoners who are unknown and who do not receive any attention from society.
  2. To give political prisoners in the country legal and other assistance, investigate prison conditions, publish the facts about violations of civil rights in the country, and arouse the general will.
  3. To provide help in the struggle for the freedom of association and assembly, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and various other civil rights.

The editors Angle and Svensson omitted a paragraph outlining a structure for administration, but in their compendium, added a subsequent, heartfelt manifesto of the League’s Shanghai section, published a year after the original, in 1933. That document denounced the widespread censorship of magazines and newspapers and the crackdown on assembly and association. Here are short extracts:

“The concept of real democracy (demokelaxi) has been held up as the norm in all social struggles for 300 years; millions of people have spilled their blood and lost their lives for it. It is still at the heart of social and economic struggles. But when the result [of these struggles] involves only a minority, it cannot be hailed as a success. Only when the majority [also] enjoys their interests can democracy be said to have been established…The China League for the Protection of Civil Rights calls on the Chinese people to rise and to strive to realize the freedom of the press, the freedoms of assembly and association, and all interests [associated with] genuine civil rights, and to fight against all censorship and prohibitions.”

In 2019 in Hong Kong, through five months of increasingly fiery and bloodstained agitation, our protesters have ripped open the convenient lie that Hong Kong is built over: That we are only about orderly city living, making money, the rule of law.

September 28 tamar park admiralty china extradition rally
Photo: Studio Incendo.

In fact, Hong Kong was fashioned from the stink of the international opium smuggling trade, and birthed from unequal treaties China was forced to sign to protect that smuggling, in the wake of the mid-19th Century Opium Wars, a clash catalysed by a reprehensible British multinational, the East India Company (EIC).  It is widely accepted that the EIC’s run-amok corporatism resulted in unmitigated disasters for India, China and, less directly, Hong Kong

The truth is that we in Hong Kong, placidly handed back to China by Britain in 1997, are a society that has never formally thrashed out — meaningfully — a vision for our unique, hybrid community and our place in the present world. Now that so much Hong Kong blood has been shed, and thousands have been arrested (and it’s always mostly the youngsters), it’s high time for us to begin assembling, from the ground up, a sustainable future we all largely agree on. Hong Kongers must finally conduct the multi-faceted conversations we should have had decades ago.

Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher, the architects of our mini-constitution the Basic Law, must be laughing in their graves. They knew all along, I suspect, that the Basic Law could easily turn out to be a toothless document. Who on earth would come forward to defend it? The answer, I think, neither could have imagined — the people of Hong Kong themselves, and perhaps a few idealistic ghosts from China’s own blood-smeared past, bearing a forgotten piece of paper.

Mishi Saran is a novelist currently based in Hong Kong. She lived in Shanghai between 2006-2014 and speaks fluent Mandarin. She is finishing a novel set in Shanghai in the 1930s. Visit her website.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.