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Reflections from Hong Kong

October 21, 2009

A conversation with Christine Loh

Christine Loh reflects on her experiences in China, as well as her work as a Hong Kong legislator and CEO of Civic Exchange, a public policy think tank. In looking back at 30 years of reform, Loh notes improvements in peoples’ lives, yet at the same time, disparities in wealth and other human rights challenges. She concludes that China’s future is not yet decided, and may require difficult public policy choices.

Human Rights in China [HRIC]: Let’s begin with your family’s connection to China and how your relationship with China developed over the years.

Christine Loh: My family history spanned a good part of China’s modern history. I was born in Hong Kong in 1956.

My mother’s family came from Guangdong’s Xiangshan County. They were merchants and compradors in the 18th, 19th and earlier part of the 20th centuries, active in China and Hong Kong, with a large network of business. The last foreign business they were associated with was the British company Butterfield and Swire (Swire Group today), which opened an office in Hong Kong in 1870, after establishing its China business in Shanghai in 1866.My mother’s family has had a long association with Hong Kong.

In colonial Hong Kong, contemporary “China” was a bit of a blank, since schools did not teach modern Chinese history. Society on the whole seemed to look “West” rather than North.

My father’s family came from Taicang in Jiangsu Province, before establishing themselves in Shanghai. Their most famous ancestor was a zhuangyuan,1 who distinguished himself at the imperial examinations in 1850, and became an official. He served the court in Beijing, and then in Hunan for much of his career. Some family members continued to be in government under the Qing Dynasty, and for the Taiwan authorities in more recent times, while others went into business in the 20th century. My father left Shanghai for Hong Kong in 1948 and went into the cotton business.

My parents were divorced and my mother remarried a Dane, so I also have a European side in my upbringing.

HRIC: How did your family view the Communist takeover of China in 1949?

Loh: The dominant sense of the “communists” came from the fact that my Shanghainese family had to leave and felt they could not return to their beloved Shanghai, and that China was so poor that hundreds of thousands of people wanted to go to Hong Kong. I got a sense that somehow the communists were unfriendly to business people, and also during the Cultural Revolution, many people suffered because they had family with “foreign” connections, like some members of the family.

HRIC: How did you perceive China when you were growing up?

Loh: There were two “Chinas”—the China of the Shanghainese, and the China of the Hong Kong Cantonese. Perhaps I should say I perceived two forms of being Chinese. The cultures of the two parts of my family were quite different. The Cantonese belonged to Hong Kong, whereas the Shanghainese in the late 1950s and 1960s seemed so different. Neither parts of the family spoke about “China,” although my father’s family came from this mystical place called Shanghai but for some reason could not go back there because of the “communists.” When I was a teenager, I also got the impression that China was “poor,” as I knew that people from Guangdong risked their lives swimming through shark-infested waters to get to Hong Kong to seek a better life. In colonial Hong Kong, contemporary “China” was a bit of a blank, since schools did not teach modern Chinese history. Society on the whole seemed to look “West” rather than North. During the Cultural Revolution in Hong Kong, a lot of people were scared and there was a lot of talk about leaving to go to the West because China (and therefore Hong Kong) was politically unstable.

HRIC: How present was China in your life and what relevance did China have then?

Loh: “China” was not present in my early life but being “Chinese” naturally was—although my outlook was more Western, as I was surrounded by an English speaking world in Hong Kong. For me, the People’s Republic of China was learnt. I became fascinated with China from 1972, when U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China and I could see from the news that “Communist China” was very different from Hong Kong (the only Chinese society I knew). My first real job was in Beijing in 1980, when China had just embarked on its Open Door Policy.

Tiananmen was my political baptism. On May 20, 1989, Hong Kong was about to be hit by a typhoon and offices were closed. I was glued to the television all day and saw Premier Li Peng’s televised broadcast announcing the imposition of martial law in Beijing. I had a terrible sense that things were not going to turn out well.

HRIC: When did China become a concrete place for you? Describe what happened, what you saw and felt.

Loh: China became concrete in January 1980 when I lived in Beijing. I went to work there for an international commodities trading house. Living there gave me an opportunity to see how society was organized, how inward-looking it was, and how ideology was thrust in your face. Yet, I met many people who were generous hearted, talented, and humorous although life was both physically tough and politically challenging. Beijing in icy winter was truly a “grand” city. It was very large by Hong Kong standards, and there were these amazing places to visit, like Mao Zedong’s tomb, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the fascinating hutongs, where many people still lived then. The Chineseness of China and that of Hong Kong were so different.

HRIC: In spring 1989, how did you view the protests in Beijing and elsewhere in China? How did the June Fourth crackdown affect you and your views toward the Chinese government?

Loh: Tiananmen was my political baptism. On May 20, 1989, Hong Kong was about to be hit by a typhoon and offices were closed. I was glued to the television all day and saw Premier Li Peng’s televised broadcast announcing the imposition of martial law in Beijing. I had a terrible sense that things were not going to turn out well. That night, SzetoWah2 and some activists organized a march from Victoria Park to the Xinhua News Agency (China’s de facto consulate in pre-1997 Hong Kong). I showed up with two friends in pouring rain and high winds.

On the night of June 3 and the morning of June 4, I was attending a friend’s wedding in a small village in Germany. By the time we had breakfast on June 4, we knew something terrible had happened in Beijing. I was to leave by car that morning for Italy and by the time I arrived in Florence, my office in Hong Kong had faxed news reports from Hong Kong. It was deeply frustrating that I could not understand Italian and the hours of talks about China on television were useless tome. I abandoned my holiday, got to Rome and got on a plane to come home. Once I was home, I joined the protest marches in Hong Kong. Politics was real and could be cruel—there would be no escape for Hong Kong because we would become a part of China in a few years.

HRIC: Aside from family ties, what kind of relationship do you have with China now?

Loh: I transited in 1998 from being a British national to a Chinese national. That was an important moment in my life. I had to give up my British citizenship to run in Hong Kong’s first post reunification legislative election, since only Chinese nationals could run in directly elected constituencies. So, I am a citizen at a time when China is reintegrating itself with the world. I am of course also from Hong Kong—this is the city that has shaped me most dramatically.

Life remains tough, however, for those who are seen to “oppose” authority because challenging power is highly risky. The challenge does not have to be against the state, it may just be people opposing local officials whom the people see as abusive and corrupt . . .

HRIC: Has your sense of personal connection to China changed over time? If so, how?

Loh: Yes, it has changed. It has changed from China being a cultural curiosity to me being a citizen of the People’s Republic. This should say it all, I guess. I was politically active in Hong Kong, and since my retirement from frontline politics, I’ve been running a public policy think tank, and thus policy and politics remain an important part of my work and life. The well-being of China is also my future.

Current Work

HRIC: When and why did you start Civic Exchange?

Loh: I started Civic Exchange in September 2000, when I retired from the Hong Kong Legislative Council. I decided not to stand for re-election because I realized frontline politics would be extremely difficult in light of the fact that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Government was unwilling to involve elected representatives in decision-making and it was probably better for me to work outside the formal political structure than inside it.

I also enjoy thinking about solutions to problems. I wanted Civic Exchange to be able to offer perspectives and solutions to Hong Kong’s problems. Since 2000, we have also started to research mainland issues, and today, we are also working on regional and global issues. For example, we looked at how village elections had evolved in China, how elections could evolve within the Chinese Communist Party, and compared democratic systems among a number of Asian countries. Civic Exchange is perhaps best known for its work on the environment. We have done a considerable amount of research on air quality and health in Hong Kong and South China, and we are also currently looking at the watersheds of the Pearl River and the Dongjiang. Our work on climate change takes a global perspective.

Thirty Years of Reform and Opening Up

HRIC: What have you observed about the changes in the lives of the Chinese on the mainland over the past 30 years of reform and opening up?

Loh: In general, people are more relaxed today than 30 years ago. The Chinese have more choices than before. There is more space and opportunity for people to pursue what they want to do. A lot of wealth has been created in parts of China, for example in much of the Pearl River Delta area in Guangdong, in parts of Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, and of course areas around Beijing and Tianjin. On the whole, however, China remains a poor country despite its $2 trillion foreign exchange reserves, and the disparity of wealth remains substantial. The Chinese can travel outside their country but Chinese nationals can still be denied entry into China, such as some politicians in Hong Kong and activists who left China after 1989. There are now lawyers who are willing to represent people who want to take their cases to court against the government, although in those especially sensitive cases, lawyers have been threatened and even beaten up.

HRIC: Please talk about the challenges presented by the unequal distribution of this wealth. What efforts have been made to address this?

Loh: The disparity of wealth and opportunity is certainly an issue the Chinese leadership is concerned about because this can be a powerful stimulant for social instability, and the Chinese authorities are especially concerned about the disparity in regions around China’s interior with ethnic minority populations. There have been campaigns, like “Go West,” to spur investments in poorer provinces, and since the SARS outbreak in 2003 an attempt to patch up a broken public health system, as well as to provide more educational resources for rural areas. You don’t have to travel very far outside the main cities in China to see unsustainable development and poverty.

HRIC: Is China a better place for the people today than 30 years ago? In what way is it better? In what way is it worse?

Loh: The fact that people are more relaxed and that they have more choices in their personal lives must mean that life is “better!” I am not sure what is “worse” because this depends on what measure you use, and I am unsure what is a fair measure of “better” and “worse.” Perhaps the loss of cultural relics and heritage can be said to be “worse.” So, for example, the wide destruction of culture and traditional family values during the Cultural Revolution was a period of madness, which thankfully stopped, but what has been destroyed cannot be recovered.

China is a more open society today than it was 30 years ago. However, there are still many aspects of the country that remain closed or where information languishes in a grey area.

HRIC: Do you think most people are more relaxed, or does it depend upon their situation? For example, for the millions of rural to urban migrants now, is it difficult to say if they are better or worse off?

Loh: I do think the majority of Chinese people are more relaxed than they were 30 years ago.

Life remains tough, however, for those who are seen to “oppose” authority because challenging power is highly risky. The challenge does not have to be against the state, it may just be people opposing local officials whom the people see as abusive and corrupt, but with the central authorities far away and almost impossible to reach, people may find it almost impossible to do much about their grievances. Without a reliable rule of law system, ordinary people have nowhere to turn, and when they cannot take it anymore, they would risk their lives in protests. As for rural migrants to cities seeking jobs, their lives can be extremely tough—they work long hours to earn enough to send home and they have no real insurance for injuries. These are the longstanding issues that pose a constant challenge to the party and the government.

HRIC: As a close observer of China, what do you see as the most fundamental problems facing Chinese society today?

Loh: It seems the Chinese state and party structures remain highly dominant in Chinese life. Despite the pervasiveness of the state and the political rhetoric for “harmony,” wide disparities of good governance remain throughout the country. Without the party’s willingness to submit itself to an independent and impartial legal system, it will probably be difficult for China to rein in corrupt and abusive officials.

HRIC: Does prosperity for a certain portion of the population increase the chance of China becoming a more open society?

Loh: China is a more open society today than it was 30 years ago. However, there are still many aspects of the country that remain closed or where information languishes in a grey area. For example, basic data, such as environmental and public health data, can still be considered “state secrets.” This makes it very difficult for officials to get hold of the right information, which must impact the quality of their decisions. The news media remains tightly controlled—and this is an issue of constant discussion within China itself. The attempt to rein in the Internet is another example of China’s struggle to hover between being more open or not.

Hong Kong: A Model for China?

HRIC: When sovereignty of Hong Kong returned to China a dozen years ago, there was a lot of talk that Hong Kong could become a model for China, at least in the sense of economic liberalism. Has that happened? Why or why not?

Loh: Hong Kong is a convenient place within the Chinese state for China to experiment with ideas, such as in economic and financial reform, and also in elections. After all, Hong Kong and Macao are two places where the people have a chance to elect legislators and district councilors even though these are relatively weak political institutions. I personally believe the evolution of functional elections in Hong Kong, which gives various sectoral interests the ability to elect one of their own to the legislature, as well as forming the base of the election committee that selects the Chief Executive, may well be how “elections” may evolve on the mainland one day.

For now, formal democracy (in the sense that Hong Kong people can elect their own political leaders) eludes us but there is no reason why we cannot continue to build the capacity for democratic life.

HRIC: What role, if any, can Hong Kong play in the democratic reform of China?

Loh: There are many aspects to building democratic life in Hong Kong. For now, formal democracy (in the sense that Hong Kong people can elect their own political leaders) eludes us but there is no reason why we cannot continue to build the capacity for democratic life. This means we must foster the public’s participation in life in the community through local affairs. People should participate in issues they care about. For example, improving the education system, cleaning up the environment, reforming the healthcare system, examining the land use and urban planning system and the tax system and asking whether they are still suitable for the 21st century, are the things we must do. If we do not do that, and just call for formal democratic reform, we will be missing a large chunk of the work of the democratic life of Hong Kong that we can pursue.

China and the World

HRIC: It is a common notion that foreign investments during the reform and opening up period, and the integration of China into the international community, would make China a more open society. Has that been happening? What is the prospect?

Loh: The paradox, or the contradiction, is that this is both true and untrue. China as a whole is more open than it was 30 years ago. Opening up is not an easy process because it involves changing the underlying assumptions—the DNA, if you will—of the structures and institutions of society, which in China’s case has to do with the party and government system. The party wants a kind of controlled opening-up, which is understandable of course. For example, if China were to just open its capital account, it might see a massive capital flight. In some areas, however, China can go faster— such as to declassify many types of data and information, including economics, finance, environment, public health, etc.

HRIC: There is a view that the opposite is true—that China is changing the world, that in order to ensure access to the Chinese market, businesses and countries are making compromises in terms of labor standards and in turn lowering their human rights standards. What is your view?

Loh: This is an important debate to have within China and outside China. Now that China is seen as an important country by the rest of the world, there is much more interest in China—its history, language, culture, and indeed its civilization. Issues such as how the Chinese govern, whether authoritarianism is part of our DNA, how the relationship between the state and citizens should evolve, how a successful Chinese state would behave to its neighbors, and as a major power, and possibly change the world are all important. Sixty years ago, China was a large and potentially important country in the world; but today it is important. With more power comes more responsibilities, so it is vital that these issues are deliberated upon widely. Of course, labor, environmental, health, legal standards, etc., should be improved.

How Should China Be Governed in the 21st Century?”

HRIC: This is the big question you stated in the preface of your book. What is your answer to it?

Loh: This is indeed a very big question—bigger than I am able to answer. I have no fast and glib response. If we just look at the past 30 years, we can see the efforts it took to open up the economy and the challenges that arose to go this far. Today, the state remains still quite dominant n the economy and it is unclear what may be he next stage of the party’s policy to further open up. the state has been experimenting with opening-up but also to replace the old control system with something more sophisticated. These measures are still in evolution, including an emerging legal system that is still far from independent or consistently applied, and a civil society that has the capacity to grow and be much more energetic.

Millions of mainlanders from many parts of China can get visas to visit Hong Kong relatively easily nowadays. . . . They see society does not fall apart just because people speak their minds, and even protest in large numbers.

HRIC: Chinese leaders have always insisted that democracy is a Western notion and does not suit China. What is your view on that?

Loh: What the party says is that a system with a strong legislature is the kind of Western system unsuited to China. The party does not accept there being an independent check on the powers of the executive/party branch. There seems to be a preference for elite reform within the system so that better-educated officials and cadres can provide better governance and less corruption. My personal view is that all power needs checking and the exercise of power itself needs transparency. These elements are those that China needs to deal with going forward.

HRIC: Can China become a more open society with justice and equality for its people without having a democratic form of government?

Loh: China’s own answer is to redefine “democracy” away from the Western liberal form and introduce one with “Chinese characteristics.” This is one where there may well be elections (as in Hong Kong and Macao) but where the legislature remains weak, and where there will be a nomination to ensure the candidates standing for election to the top executive posts have been essentially vetted through controlling the nomination process.

HRIC: What role if any do you wish to play in improving the conditions for the people on the mainland in the coming years?

Loh: I would like to continue to do what I can in Hong Kong to improve policy in various areas, including researching constitutional models. There are problems with the functional election system that keeps vested interests in power, which can even work against reforms the government wants to put in place. It is also a system the people believe to be unfair. In the area of the environment, by cleaning up, I hope it will contribute to the health of residents in South China.

HRIC: How do you see China changing in the next 60 years?

Loh: I think I will wait and see. Each development, each choice made, has an impact on the future. The future has not been decided!

HRIC: Human rights, especially international human rights, tend to be viewed and treated as sensitive by the authorities. What shifts have you observed in the development of human rights domestically in China? What role do you think human rights NGOs inside and outside China can play to contribute to addressing some of the issues above?

Loh: It is good that China has signed up to a number of international human rights conventions with periodic reporting responsibilities, which are presented before international committees of experts. These occasions enable NGOs to provide reports and recommendations, and engage China in debate. The government controls the report-writing process, and often refutes the observations and recommendations of international NGOs. Nevertheless, these UN processes are part and parcel of what China must deal with and I would like to think that over time, they will change the human rights discourse within China, and between China and the world. In the end, human rights go to the core of the relationship between the state and the individual.

HRIC: Millions of mainland tourists, students, and business people come in and out of Hong Kong each year. What role do you think this flow of people can play in contributing to the process of greater openness, democracy building, or long-term cultural and political changes?

Loh: It seems Hong Kong is one of the first places—if not the first place—mainland tourists visit. Millions of mainlanders from many parts of China can get visas to visit Hong Kong relatively easily nowadays. If they read the newspapers and visit bookstores, they should find an array of reports and publications that are not available on the mainland, especially books about China— the latest one being the book by former premier Zhao Ziyang. There are also now many mainlanders who work in Hong Kong, and they are the ones who have a real experience of what it is like to live in a liberal Chinese society. They see society does not fall apart just because people speak their minds, and even protest in large numbers. One hopes the party and government on the main land may also conclude that a higher degree of openness and freedom does not lead to “chaos.”

Notes

1. Zhuangyuan (状元) is the term of honor given to the student who received the highest score on the imperial examination in use from 605 to 1905 for selecting candidates for officialdom. Imperial examinations were offered to all males, regardless of economic or social background. ^

2. Szeto Wah (司徒华) is a prominent activist in Hong Kong politics and a former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (1985–1997; 1998–2004). ^

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