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Albert Ho and Emily Lau on Democracy under One Country, Two Systems

January 26, 2011

Two Hong Kong legislators discuss the role Hong Kong can play in advancing democratic progress in mainland China.

Human Rights in China (HRIC): Mr. Ho, I would like to ask you to briefly introduce yourself. You are an active member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LEGCO) and also a human rights activist. You formed an NGO and currently you are also part of a direct action in the form of a hunger strike. Can you talk about the formation of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, and explain the group’s purpose and its current focus?

Albert Ho (AH): I’ll start with the Chinese human rights lawyers, such as Gao Zhisheng. I came to know Gao in 2006, when I had the opportunity to speak with him over the phone through an introduction by a reporter. He was in the middle of a hunger strike, protesting against the Guangdong authorities about certain assaults by officials causing grievous bodily harm to Guo Feixiong. Actually, at the time, I had already been keeping a close watch on the weiquan (rights defense) movement in China for a few years. I was very supportive of Gao’s hunger strike campaign and I decided to join him. I held this hunger strike for 24 hours every Wednesday, during the full LEGCO session. I think it is symbolic for me to stage a hunger strike in LEGCO, which is part of the People’s Republic of China’s establishment, and that I could still discharge my duties as a legislator while being on the hunger strike. I sustained the hunger strike for more than a year before I temporarily suspended it, and then I restarted it about a year ago. I still conduct the hunger strike every Wednesday.

Subsequently, I had the idea of forming a concern group to render continued support to the human rights lawyers in China. I think such lawyers play a very significant role in the mainland, in seeking to hold the government to its promise of governing according to law. I think that to build a constitutional democracy, it is imperative first to have a sound legal system for developing a role for constitutionalism—both of which form the foundation of a liberal democracy. So, an independent legal profession is a necessary component of a sound legal system and the rule of law. Nobody can say that lawyers are against state interest or cause instability in the country, because they’re just doing their jobs: acting to press the government to play by the rules of the game, which the government itself created.

So, with the help of Emily, we were able to find a sponsor, Sir Joseph Hotung, who generously gave us a lump sum grant for three years, and subsequently we were able to recruit a group of lawyers, including practicing barristers, solicitors, academics (in particular professors of law), and other people who have an interest in the rule of law in China. We started an office and recruited Patrick Poon as our executive officer. He’s very devoted and very capable.

We also started to build up our contact with lawyers in China. At that time, I came to know personally not only Gao Zhisheng, but also other well-known rights defense lawyers, such as Zheng Enchong of Shanghai, Guo Feixiong of Guangzhou, and also Chen Guangcheng in Shandong Province. Through our contacts and also through other rights defense lawyers such as Teng Biao, Pu Zhiqiang, and Yang Zaixin, we know that they feel very encouraged about the formation of the concern group, with a focus on providing them not only attention but also support and sometimes financial assistance.

Since the founding of the concern group, we have been engaged in activities in three major areas. The first is advocacy work. We raise public awareness of issues through letters of concern to government authorities or high-profile protests and demonstrations. We also work in partnership with other NGOs, such as Amnesty International in Hong Kong, to voice our concern over the mistreatment of lawyers.

In the past few years, we have been arousing international concern about the system of annual license renewal for lawyers and have been engaged in a very vigorous campaign to ask the Chinese authorities to do away with this unnecessary restriction on practicing law. We raised our concerns over Article 306 of the Criminal Code,1 which always posed a threat to lawyers when they acted too vigorously to collect evidence to sustain a defense of their clients against criminal prosecution. We also raise concerns when lawyers are assaulted or unlawfully detained, as in Gao Zhisheng’s case. When he was abducted and tortured in 2007, we acted very promptly to voice our concerns. Each time we received information, we put it on the Internet promptly, but only after consultation with Gao’s family members.

The second area of activity for the group is in training and exchange programs with Chinese human rights lawyers. We ask them to come to Hong Kong—of course we pay for the trips—and then we hold workshops, closed-door seminars, and exchanges of views. We also take the lawyers to visit a lot of public institutions, very often the courts, the ombudsman, the legal aid department, the Equal Opportunity Commission, etc.

HRIC: How large are those exchange groups?

AH: Usually six to ten people.

HRIC: Do they include high-profile lawyers?

AH: Yes, initially, but sometimes those lawyers have difficulty coming to Hong Kong. For instance, Li Heping and He Weifang have never been able to come, but we managed to get Teng Biao, Li Fangping, Mo Xiaoping—Mo Xiaoping can always come. Xu Zhiyong came one time and also Jiang Tianyong. Recently we have encouraged more younger weiquan lawyers to come.

Emily Lau (EL): And women lawyers.

AH: The lawyers find the programs very informative, very useful. We give them quite a lot of ideas. For in­stance, the death inquiry: this is a very important system in Hong Kong, showing respect for human life. So we show them that in cases of unnatural death, there would be a judicial official looking over the records, seeking investigation, and ordering an open public inquiry. In cases of death under official custody, there would be an open inquiry with not only legal representation of the deceased’s family members, but also a jury panel deciding on the cause of death, making findings on the circumstances of death, with recommendations of measures to be put in place to prevent recurrence of this unfortunate event. We also bring them to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). This is a good, eye-opening exercise.

We also take them to Taiwan, in cross-strait exchanges. Our partners in the Taiwan Lawyers Association are also very enthusiastic. On a number of occasions, they have issued joint statements with us, calling for the release of weiquan lawyers who have been unlawfully, unreasonably detained. We are working very closely with a group of Taiwanese human rights lawyers, and some of them are top lawyers in Taipei.

The third activity of the concern group is the most sensitive part, but the most effective: giving financial aid to the lawyers taking up weiquan work. In the past, these lawyers used to do this work on a pro bono basis, and that led them into a lot of financial hardship. This work is very time consuming, and they have to travel and pay the airfare and the hotel expenses out of their own pocket. Usually the aid we provide is not sufficient to cover the whole case, but it is a way to show some support and to give relief. The money will be sent to the clients, making sure it will be used for legal expenses. This is one of the key areas of the work we have been undertaking in the past three years. The lawyers feel very encouraged, knowing their work has been appreciated.

In some cases we also give temporary humanitarian aid to family members of lawyers who have been imprisoned; and for those who have been barred from practicing, we would engage them on a contract basis to do some research work. You know all of this is quite sensitive. We keep a very low profile; we never publish the names. Of course we won’t be able to keep it entirely secretive, because the Chinese authorities are so effective; they have thousands of Internet police working all the time. I think the other side should be fully aware of what we have been doing. But I think that because of the low-profile way we do it, we can still work within the limits of their tolerance. And what we are doing is simply giving some sort of legal aid to clients seeking to engage lawyers to conduct defense in court, something that is no big deal in any country; in fact, it should be the responsibility of the government.

HRIC: Can you summarize what you think is the most important impact of this work in the past and the key challenges going forward?

AH: We are now at a crucial point in history. China is now at a crossroads; the government has to make important strategic decisions as to how the country should move forward. I think that Premier Wen Jiabao has articulated the present situation of the country: political reform is imperative in order to enable the country to preserve social stability and continue economic development. Now, there is a lot of internal conflict and tension within the country, but one thing is sure: no matter who is in power, the country has to be governed by—and according to—the law. The minimal requirement is that the law should be made clear to the public, and everybody, including the government and its officials, should abide by it. Otherwise the country would be a barbaric state. But even in this, the government has often failed to deliver. Because corruption is so rampant, lawyers are just doing their job to help build a legal system that is workable and being respected by the government and the people. Now, you can’t say the lawyers are doing something to topple the country: they are just acting according to the law made by the National People’s Congress.

I think the reason weiquan lawyers are being repressed by the government is that they are getting more and more influential for a number of reasons: they are educated professionals; have earned respectable social status in China; and are committed to upholding certain values, at least protecting the rights of the people under the law. They are also courageous. They speak out and they gain the respect of many people, and that makes the government very, very uncomfortable.

HRIC: Emily, can you talk about the international component of the work, in the United Nations, for example?

EL: We want to form liaisons with many groups. The fact that we are getting so many requests for meetings and interviews shows that there are many groups that know about our existence and want to find out what we are doing—that is all very good. If there are opportunities at the United Nations, we will try to go along and add our tuppence worth, such as during the Universal Periodic Review2 and other special procedures, because Hong Kong is also party to many hu­man rights conventions, in addition to China. So now whenever there is a hearing, if it’s on both mainland China and in Hong Kong, the Democratic Party will file a report on the Hong Kong aspect and the concern group will file a report regarding the mainland.

HRIC: One of the reactions that the weiquan lawyers have shared with us and one of the challenges they face in China is that if you actually do rights defense work, either you will be marginalized or people will look at you and say, “Of course they’re doing rights defense work; it is because they’re not good enough to the commercial cases or real law cases.” One of the re­actions these rights defense lawyers have shared with us is that it’s very important that groups like yours and the international community recognize and sup­port their work, because the recognition and support add to the legitimacy of their work.

As democracy activists in Hong Kong, what do you see down that road for this “one country, two systems” experiment?

EL: Well, yesterday I went to a secondary school in Albert’s constituency to talk to the kids about human rights and freedoms and they asked me whether Hong Kong would still be free at the end of the 50-year deal Deng Xiaoping offered to Hong Kong, allowing that after the change of sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong’s system would remain unchanged and our free life­style would be preserved for that time period. And I told the students it’s very important for them to work hard for their freedoms, because those freedoms will not fall like manna from heaven. I also said that they should not let these freedoms sit on a shelf like some decorations that they just take down every now and then to dust, because one day they may find out that those decorations are broken.

I said, “You must exercise your freedoms, but you should also do it in a peaceful and orderly way. If you resort to civil disobedience, that’s fine, but there are consequences, and if you are prepared to take those consequences, that is your choice.” I said that whether we will continue to be free and have the rule of law in ten, twenty years time is very much dependent on the Hong Kong people, and most important, the young people. I also encouraged them to take part in politics, to join political parties, and to stand for elections. One day they may want to stand for election as chief executive. These are things I put into their minds. I say, “You are part of Hong Kong and part of China, and you may also want to play a big role in the development of China.” I told them I won’t be around at the end of this fifty-year deal, but it will be up to them to struggle hard and be fear­less. They should not turn a blind eye when they see injustice happening around them. These students are motivated, but they do not hear people speaking to them in this way often.

Of course, China is changing, and it may change for good or for bad. We don’t know. But I think Hong Kong can play a very important part; that’s what the human rights lawyers tell us. Even if you just preserved what you’ve got, it would be a good development for the rest of China. There are so many mainland Chinese in Hong Kong every day, in our universities, in our companies; they get influenced, too.

HRIC: I saw the immigration statistics for the last couple of years and there are now over 12 million tourists, businesspeople, and students coming to Hong Kong every year. What do you see as the potential of that flow of people to Hong Kong?

AH: For the last 100 years, Hong Kong has always been a pain in the neck for mainland China. Hong Kong has never been a democracy through the last 100 years, and even up to now. But at the same time, interestingly, Hong Kong has always been a conductor in facilitating change in China in a very subtle way.

The reason why Hong Kong is so unique and interesting is that this a free place, where lots of information can pass into China. During Mao Zedong’s time, or even during the time of economic liberalization under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist leaders wanted to keep Hong Kong, because they needed Hong Kong to help them raise money and get information, and for them to get experience. Now, most important, Hong Kong is the place where, as part of China, local compatriots can speak freely, without fear, without reservation, speaking our conscience for the whole nation. So, the candlelight vigil held every year on June Fourth is symbolic because it is held in the de facto territory of the PRC, yet every year there are hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Victoria Park to commemorate June Fourth. They just go there to express their deep feelings for June Fourth and their aspirations for a better China, for a free and democratic China. If China were a free place, there would be millions of people everywhere to commemorate that.

Although we don’t have democracy, we do have functioning public institutions, a civil society, legal aid, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, judiciary, ombudsman, etc. We have all of the necessary and indispensable parts of a democracy including the active role of the opposition. Some people criticize me for using this word “opposition,” because they can never get into power as an alternative government. However, the thing is, we are preparing ourselves because conditions are ripe for democracy in Hong Kong. We need a change to the constitutional system for full democratization, and Beijing is now obstructing this, but we are continuing to engage in a campaign for constitutional democratic reform. We all know this is not going to be easy, because the fate of Hong Kong is now locked up with that of China. We need to see a change in mind-set in the leadership in China; otherwise it won’t allow Hong Kong to become a democracy, which would serve as a very influential model for the whole country. So we are seeking to move the whole country forward, not just Hong Kong.

The door for democracy is very big and very heavy, but the door is going to be open for the whole country. What is crucial is a change in mind-set. The pace of democracy will not be the same for Hong Kong as for other parts of China. If the leaders on the mainland are prepared for democracy for the whole country, if they are prepared to lay a timetable for democratization for the whole country, then there will be no difficulty for Hong Kong to go first as the model for the whole country.

I have been taking pains to tell our friends in China that we have a lot to learn from acting as opposition. We now know how to play the rules of the game in LEGCO, to read papers, to become informed about government policy, to formulate alternative policies, to question the government, to enter into debates, to rouse public awareness, to nurture constituencies, and to take part in elections. All this is solid, concrete work that we have to do well before we can get ourselves prepared for democracy. The software is there, and we are putting it all in place, except one thing: opening up the door for the whole country. So that is the most significant part, and people are watching with immense interest. I end with one interesting observation: there are more and more people giving donations in the candlelight vigil, in renminbi.

HRIC: It is a very hopeful sign.

EL: It is a sign of one country, two systems. Our concern group is not tolerated inside China, but the Chinese authorities allow us to set up here, and the same with the Falun Gong; the same with the June Fourth candlelight vigil. All these things cannot happen in mainland China, but they are happening in China. So the Chinese government is making concessions.

AH: It’s still going to be a very difficult way ahead for us. It is a very difficult time and perhaps the darkest time is before dawn.

AH: Beijing is seeking to reunite with Taiwan, and they know there will be no hope unless there is a political order built on a truly constitutional democratic system as the basis for unification. Otherwise, how can you expect Taiwan to give up democracy for the sake of reunification? And Hong Kong is facilitating the process of reunification, which should synchronize with the process of democratization. If you don’t democratize, I don’t see how the Taiwan government could gain the support of the Taiwanese people for unification.

HRIC: Well, thank you for sharing the work and sharing the insights and, most important, for sharing your hopeful vision.

Editor’s Notes

1. Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China [中华人民共和国刑法修正案(三)], as amended by the National People’s Congress on December 28, 2002. ^

2. Enacted in March 2006, the Universal Periodic Review is a quadrennial review of the human rights record of each of the United Nations mem­ber states. China underwent its review in 2009. More information is available at http://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/upr/pages/uprmain.aspx. ^

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