RTHK "Letter to Hong Kong"

by Martin Lee

For broadcast 25 October 1997

This week saw a major crisis in our financial markets -- and no doubt many people are even now considering whether they should buy or sell tomorrow.

We are told by our government that we do not have too much to worry about: that we have a strong economy, large reserves, a reliable legal system and a good supervisory system. I agree.

But what about the fundamentals of our society at large? No one will deny that the rule of law is absolutely vital to our continued prosperity and stability, because without it, our freedom cannot be preserved. Our freedom is the most important thing for the people of Hong Kong because it is the quest for freedom that brought us here and it is the fear of the loss of freedom that persuaded so many of our friends and relatives to leave Hong Kong in the last decade.

Our Chief Executive Mr. Tung's favourite line is: "If China is good, then Hong Kong is good -- if Hong Kong is good, then China is good."

This is a truism. But I think perhaps a more apposite question is: "What if china is bad?" For example, if China's economy or political situation is bad. When I put this question to Mr. Tung recently, his answer was simply that China will continue to improve.

I am impressed by his faith in China. But history tells us that there are cycles in China. It is like a pendulum swinging slowly to the right, when the economy gets better and better, and the people are given more freedoms. But then the pendulum suddenly swings to the left -- sweeping all of the progress along with it.

History also tells us that it takes about ten years to complete one such cycle. The last time the pendulum swung to the left was in 1989 -- but I hope that it does not mean that by 1999 the pendulum will swing again to the left!

But if the "one country, two systems" policy is to be faithfully implemented, we have nothing to fear when that happens. For Hong Kong will not be attached to the pendulum and our fundamentals will remain intact. In that case Mr. Tung can well say to President Jiang: "I am sorry that you find it necessary to change policies in mainland China, but we are not going to follow suit."

However, is Mr. Tung really in a position to detach Hong Kong from China's pendulum when it swings to the left? I doubt it. For instead of doing his best to make sure that none of our freedoms will be eroded, he has chosen instead to defend China's human rights records when he travelled aboard. He seems to have attached Hong Kong to the pendulum and pins all his hopes on China continuing to swing to the right forever and ever.

Now, Mr. Tung is telling everybody both in Hong Kong and during his tours abroad, that it is "business as usual" in Hong Kong, that everything is exactly the same -- if not better -- than before the handover.

I suppose if you choose to wear blinkers, you may agree with him. But if you care to look at the institutions that we have: the executive, the legislature, and the courts, you will find that many changes have already taken place.

First, Beijing clearly controls the Hong Kong government, via the Beijing selected Mr. Tung. Beijing also clearly controls the Provisional Legislature which it effectively appointed.

As for the courts, we are still waiting for our judges to show that they do retain their independence from the government. I regret that although our judges in the High Court and the Court of Appeal have had a few opportunities in recent months to demonstrate their independence, the public perception, including that some leading lawyers, has been rightly or wrongly that there was too much eagerness on the part of our judges to prop up rather shaky government institutions, in particular, the Provisional Legislature. The public may regrettably presume that political pressure does not stop at the door of our courts; and it is up to our judges, particularly those sitting at the highest courts, to establish a track record of always being perceived to be doing justice, even where the government is being sued by a private citizen.

On the cultural front, there are some worrying signs too. We recently learned that there are three movies concerning China and Tibet which are being released world-wide. But the fear is that they will not be shown to the Hong Kong public -- not because there is any evidence of interference from the government in Beijing--but perhaps because people are already practising self- censorship.

On the economic front, Mr. Tung has decided to set up a fund to support specific industries. This practice is a departure from the former colonial policy of positive non-intervention which means that the government will always leave it to the free market to decide which industry has a future in Hong Kong. Subsidising industries is of course a Singaporian approach. The trouble is that even assuming that the government has got it right in deciding which industry to support, there comes a time when this industry should no longer be supported. But money is already pumped in and the vested interests may have a strong voice in the Executive Council to pump even more money in. I am afraid we are going down a dangerous slope.

Let me end by coming back to the fundamentals. There is no doubt in my mind that as far as the stock market is concerned, what goes up must come down, and what comes down will go up again. The market will find a proper balance very soon.

But what about the fundamentals of our society? Unless these important fundamentals of our community are institutionalised, then although we may still be free to enjoy a lot of our freedoms today, there is simply no guarantee that they will continue tomorrow. And for most people, the bottom line is their freedom -- not their wallets.

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