South China Morning Post, Monday, June 30, 1997

A Beacon for the Mainland to Follow

By Martin C.M. Lee


At the stroke of midnight tonight Hong Kong becomes part of China. And yet the key question for Hong Kong people and the international community -- whether we will be able to keep our freedoms and preserve our way of life -- remains unresolved.

In recent months, I have been surprised that a number of visitors from China have come up to me in the street and asked me to keep Hong Kong free. Thus even our mainland compatriots understand the most important thing is for Hong Kong to survive as an example to China of what free people under the rule of law can achieve. Hong Kong has always been a beacon for China -- economically, culturally, and I believe, politically. We have a much more important obligation to continue being a beacon after the handover. With the world watching, we must show it that it is possible to preserve and even expand freedom where it already exists.

Last week, China's Foreign Minister Qian Qichen gave a key interview to the South China Morning Post where he reaffirmed a promise to adhere to the terms of the Joint Declaration -- and even repudiated some of his earlier statements about what would and what would not be allowed in Hong Kong after the handover. In his interview Mr. Qian repeatedly said the questions of demonstrations and press freedom were matters for the SAR government -- which is entirely correct. He insisted China would practise the promised policy of non-interference in Hong Kong's internal affairs and repeated that these forms of free expression would be respected by China. Our Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa has given similar assurances that freedoms will continue. If "one country, two systems" means anything, it must mean that Hong Kong continues to be free and we can continue doing tomorrow -- when we are part of China -- exactly what we do today.

For 13 years we have waited for the transfer of sovereignty to occur and heard these pledges that our rights and freedoms will continue unabridged. But will they? That depends not on Beijing or Mr. Tung -- but instead on us, the people of Hong Kong.

Despite the past decade's broken promises and disappointments, I believe we must take Chinese leaders and Mr. Tung at their word and insist that all of the promises in the Joint Declaration be honoured in full. If we voluntarily give up some of our rights and freedoms, we have no one but ourselves to blame. And if we practise self-censorship because we believe our freedoms will be rolled back, then this will certainly be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

All Hong Kong people need to work together to keep Hong Kong free. Particularly those of us on the front lines: journalists, civil servants, business leaders and elected representatives.

Journalists must stand together to defend press freedom and to guard against the self-censorship we know is all too prevalent today. A recent Hong Kong Journalists Association Survey found that almost 90 per cent of reporters believe there is significant self-censorship in the profession. But so long as reporters and editors stand firm and continue to report the facts as they see them, there will always be a market for the truth. And efforts to roll back press freedom will fail.

Civil servants likewise must continue to do their jobs independently. Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang recently stated she would continue to speak out on "points of principle and matters of conscience," expressing concern about the retreat on civil liberties' laws and human rights. Whether interference comes from Beijing or from Hong Kong, civil servants must follow her example, resist and do so in such a way that discourages future intrusion.

The local and international business community must jettison the belief that if political freedoms are restricted, it will not affect Hong Kong's prosperity. Economic freedom in Hong Kong depends directly on political freedoms: on the rule of law, on the free flow of economic information, on our level playing field. Freedom comes as a whole -- it cannot be separated into bits, with China accepting only economic freedom and restricting political freedoms. The business community must now become a vocal defender of Hong Kong's system and freedoms -- political as well as economic. For we are all in the same boat.

For elected leaders and politicians, we have a special responsibility to speak up for those who may not have a voice. My Democratic Party colleagues and I fully intend to continue our work to promote democracy, to continue speaking out and by doing so to show the world that these freedoms are being exercised in Hong Kong. We intend to stay and contest the elections -- thereby giving people a real choice and making it more difficult for freedoms to be curtailed.

Self-censorship is another word for fear. If we continually ask ourselves this question: "What would happen if I reported this sensitive story or attended this demonstration?" You would probably not write that sensitive story and stay home. What you should be asking is: "I wrote a sensitive story or attended a rally last week -- why shouldn't I write this report now or attend this demonstration?"

Imagine yourself in a large, well-lit room. Suddenly all the lights go out. But if you have a candle and a box of matches, light can be brought about by a single flame. And if other people follow your example and also light their candles, then the light will return. In short, the degree of autonomy we will enjoy is only as high as our level of determination to defend it.

But imagine yourself in a room with many lit candles. If you extinguish your candle, others may do so as well and darkness will come. So we must all remember, that if we exercise our freedom today, others are watching and will follow. But equally, if we practise self-censorship, the chances are that others will restrain themselves too.

Mr. Tung has said to "trust him" to keep freedoms in Hong Kong.

But Hong Kong people know we must trust in a system -- a system that will preserve our freedoms, not the good intentions of an individual.

The most important thing to remember is that Hong Kong people are our system. It is only as strong as we are.

It is often said that a society gets the government it deserves. If we fail to stand together, if we fail to continue exercising the freedoms we enjoy today -- then we will have no one to blame but ourselves, for we will have voluntarily tied our hands.

But if we resolve as a community to continue living freely and we remain determined to fight for the freedoms we are promised, it will be all the more difficult for them to be taken away. Are we up to the challenge?

That test -- our greatest ever as a society -- begins today.

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