Can Communist Regimes Reform? The Case of Hong Kong with Yang Jianli, Lester Shum, Alex Chow

Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters and student leaders Alex Chow and Lester Shum discuss human rights in China with Dr. Yang Jianli and address the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full Remarks

Yang Jianli: Let me begin by repeating what I have said on many occasions. There are three most important jobs in the world. One is making peace in the Middle East. Two is democratizing China. Three, losing weight. So probably unfortunately, it remains true, will remain true, for many years to come. 

When we come to China, we know China is such a huge country. It’s just an elephant in your living room, you cannot ignore it. But sadly to say, this country is a great country that we love with great potential, but has fundamental problems. It gave the world a lot of troubles. The Tibetan issue is China’s problem. North Korean situation has a lot to do with China, let alone Hong Kong, of course. Many people talk about prerequisites for democratization in a country, the site of economic culture, education, income, all these factors. By all counts, Hong Kong satisfies the conditions. But why not Hong Kong? 

So we all know, we all watched as Hong Kong students staged 79 protests last year, asking for the very right to choose their own leader, which is promised by the Chinese government as well. But why? So we saw these two young leaders on the street in a conference room across the table with government representatives in the dialogue, the only dialogue with the Government during the 79 days. So we are very, very lucky to have these two young leaders to be with us today. And we see hope in this generation. And Alex Chow is the Secretary General of Hong Kong Federation For Students. And Lester Shum is the Deputy Secretary General. They both play a key role in the protest. Without much ado, I give a floor to these two people. They will, you know, talk about the reasons [for] what happened and what’s going to happen. 

Alex Chow: Good afternoon. So I’m Alex and he is Lester. We are both undergraduate students back in Hong Kong. So I guess today well, my friends here, you have listened to [] different stories, different sharings from different countries and most of you must be inspired by some of the stories. Those stories, I bet most of them, carry on with hope sometimes, tragedy. I guess Hong Kong’s story, Hong Kong’s case, will share the same. 

So I would share the PowerPoint with Lester all together in illustrating Hong Kong’s situation and problem. I guess when people are concerned about Hong Kong, in some sense, they’re also concerned about China because people will feel like “well, right now China is the greatest or the second largest economy in the world so her step or her decision or her future will definitely affect the world. And Hong Kong as appraised within Mainland China or under the rule of China, well she would absolutely also accept China.” And this part, when you look at the words in the Chinese language, it means to seize our future. This slogan was proposed by the students [] last year when we initiated a student strike in September. So why this is important. We’re going to illustrate it in that PowerPoint. I don’t know whether you guys have seen this since last year. This one, and this one. Actually, there are some major roles in Hong Kong. But last year, they were brought by thousands of citizens in Hong Kong. And the reason for being there is because the government used tear gas to eliminate people on the street. But why did this happen? Well, maybe we have to trace back to thirty years. 

Thirty years before, there was a boy called Benny Tai. And look at this handsome young man, Benny Tai. Thirty years later, also Benny Tai. So 30 years before, when it was in the 80s, Benny Tai was a law student studying at the University of Hong Kong. And 30 years later, [] he became a law professor, also in the Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong. But by the time he was already the proposal of the Occupy Central Wealth, the Love and Peace campaign. So here comes a question: how a city prepared a young handsome gentleman to become a professor that would ask people to go on the street and demonstrate; how would this happen? And this is what we have faced in the past three decades in Hong Kong. 

In the 80s, actually after the Second World War, the British government, they took over Hong Kong again. And in the 70s, the colonial government, they started to think about different reforms. Why they initiated reforms [was] because they knew that when it came to the 80s, and the 90s, the Chinese government would ask to take back Hong Kong. So in order to increase the bargaining power at hand of the British government, they started different reforms in the 70s. And when it came to the 80s, the British government and the Chinese government, they started to negotiate what would be the future of Hong Kong. And by 1984, there was a single British joint declaration signed. But at the time there was no role for Hong Kong people, it was only a deal made by the British government and the Chinese government. Actually, what was signed [was] a promise in a single British Joint Declaration, it’s a list in this way: the chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of election or consultation to be held locally. That means that when they signed this joint declaration in the 80s, the Chinese government made an international promise that Hong Kong people would gain universal suffrage after 1997. And that was the promise made by the Chinese government and also the British government in the 80s. But as we all know, the promise didn’t really come true. And in 1989, by the time some of the Hong Kong people – they were also looking forward to the future of Hong Kong. [] Some of them might have hope, after 1997, because in the mid 80s, in the late 80s, the Chinese government or China, they’re having their kind of reform, economic reform, political reform. 

But by the time of 1989, there was something that happened and that was called the Tiananmen Massacre, or the 1989 Student Movement. And maybe most of you will know that this movement actually stopped the progress of democratic reform in China. And the picture here was run. In Hong Kong, students and citizens, they ran on the street to protest and to support China. Every year, there will be a vigil held in Victoria Park in Hong Kong. Thousands of people would gather there. But these kinds of efforts didn’t really help Hong Kong to gain democracy. 

After 1989, actually most of the Hong Kong people, they were kind of indifferent to the situation because there’s a lot of uncertainty for tension. They don’t know whether the Chinese government will collapse after 1989 and kind of unsure of what will also happen after 1997. So by the time in the 90s, there was a lot of different commentary saying that Hong Kong might die after 1997, there will be a new guide in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong will be different again; they will no longer be an economic city well, as influential as before. And when 1997 came, actually most of the Hong Kong people, they were kind of unwilling to accept such a truth. And some of my friends, well, in an older age, they even cried when 1997 came.

Lester Shum: Yeah, okay. Here comes the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the China government. Many people were wondering whether the [Chinese] government will fulfill or will keep the promise, which is signed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. Hong Kong people are protected by the One Country Two System with a separate law system. Hong Kong can enjoy the rights of rule of law, and then the Hong Kong people can exercise the right of a high autonomy on the local issues in Hong Kong. Many people wonder whether China’s government would keep this promise in 1997. However, we look back on the history in these days, and then we will find out that actually, the Chinese government had no intention to keep their promise on the One Country Two System, and the promise that Hong Kong people can exercise their right on high autonomy. The main reason is because we believe that this is an ideological war between the Chinese government and the Western countries. 

During the colonial times, Hong Kong people were governed and ruled by the British people, or British government and then they cultivated a culture, or the mindset, that there’s so-called “Western ideologies” in Hong Kong, such as freedom, justice, equality, liberal democracy and the rule of law. And this is contradictory to what Chinese government believe or that the Chinese government just treat these ideologies – freedom, justice, democracy rule of law – as a threat to the regime in China, or [as a] threat to the ruling in China. So they actually have a so-called “Cold War” mindset on the Hong Kong issue because they do not believe that Hong Kong people actually believe what they called the Western ideologies: freedom, justice, equality, liberal democracy and rule of law. So that the issue in Hong Kong is just a war [] reflecting the China mindset, that it has a war between [] China and the Western countries, including the USA, including the UK, and Ukraine, other Western countries. 

And Hong Kong’s situation is always unique. Unlike Macau, a place beside Hong Kong beside China. Also, it was a colonial place by protocol. Macau is very trusted, very trusted by the Chinese government because Macau lacks dissidents, or lacks rebellion movements in Macau. However in Hong Kong, a city or cosmopolitan city, which is occupied by the so-called hostile values ruled by the Chinese government, liberal democracy, rule of law, justice, fairness and freedom is never trusted by the Chinese government. So that, as a result, the Chinese government proposed a series of interventions and methods to control and to mold the environment, or what people think, in Hong Kong. 

The most direct way to control Hong Kong and to mold Hong Kong must be the political system. As Dr. Yang said, we cannot choose our own leader, we cannot choose our own chief executive. The chief executive is chosen by a so-called “nominating committee,” election committee, formed by a group of 800 or 1,200 people  which are totally controlled by the probation parties and the local tycoons. For example, the land tycoons for example, the STA tycoons. These tycoons or this rich guy have a very tight or very close relationship with the Chinese government and they are totally controlled by the Chinese government on [] political issues.  And then, not to mention the Legislative Council. Hong Kong is a very special or very strange place where the Legislative Council, half of our elected legislative councilors, are elected directly by people. However, the other half of them is what we called the “funds for law constituency.” They are also formed or elected by a small circle election; only a small group or a certain group of people can choose the Legislative Council. As a result, the legislative councils and Chief Executive, also totally controlled by the government, there’s a series of problems of race in Hong Kong. For example, the housing problems. For example, the homeless people in Hong Kong. For example, the land monopoly issue; the land and race is totally monopolized or controlled by those who guide because of the strange election system or political system. And that’s not the only part of what China wants to control the Hong Kong place. 

And then on the other hand, they launched a series of interventions. For example, in 2003, the Chinese government wanted to pass a law on what is today called “The Basic Law Article 23.” It is about protecting our national security in Hong Kong. We believe that this Article 23 of Basic Law infringes our freedom of speech, our freedom to assembly, our freedom to oppose our own government. We will be imprisoned like Tatian, or like Lucia Bo, or Ai Weiwei in China, because we say something against the government. Many Hong Kong people and 500,000 people come to the street and come to a demonstration. And this is a turning point for Hong Kong [as] thousands of people come to demonstrate, a so-called “paradigm shift.” It is also a process of decolonization in Hong Kong. 

In the colonial period, the Hong Kong people only care about wealth, only care about money, only care about their materials; it’s very materialistic. They [did] not care about the future, they [would] not stand up to fight for their own place, for their home, for Hong Kong. But in 2003, they came out and demonstrated [] against the law of Hong Kong, and then [] against the law of Article 23 of the Basic Law. So that is to say that the government refused the proposal of Article 23 of Basic Law. This is the first victory by a social movement, which is initiated or joined by 500,000 of Hong Kong citizens to fight [for] their own future. This, and this is a very important paradigm shift in Hong Kong that influenced the ongoing dilemma in Hong Kong. And we believe that it caused the Umbrella Movement in some certain race or some certain factors.

Alex Chow: Okay. So time is limited, so we have to pick up. 

So as Lester mentioned, there are lots of social problems happening in Hong Kong: housing problem, poverty gap. And the government, they will also have different policies so as to stick to brainwash students after the National Education incident. So every time there were problems coming out, there was a social movement. Throughout about three decades, people finally realized that we could not only abide by the practice or the struggle that we have been using in the past 30 years, because in the current situation, the practice that we have been using in the past three decades, it could no longer sway the government. 

So actually, last year or two years ago, Benny Tai proposed a new idea of struggling, that is civil disobedience. But he’s asking people to sacrifice more so as to awaken more people. And that’s the origin of how the occupation came to Hong Kong. And students also played a part in that so as to counter the colonial legacy to illuminate the political system inherited before 1997. So in September in late, late August, the Chinese government [] smashed the hope for political reform in Hong Kong. Because in August, they had a meeting, making a decision that there will be no authentic democratic reform in Hong Kong. The chief executive election, actually well, the right to nominate, it will be only restricted to 1200 people, that is the member[s] of the nominating committee. 

So in that sense, students felt they have to stand up, and that’s how [the] students strike change in September.  And so from this, you can see that student strikes [] were structured in CUHK, one at the University of Hong Kong then soon moved to Tamar Park, a park near the headquarter of the government. But after five days of demonstrations and student strikes, the government still didn’t have any response. And that’s why, on the last day of the students strike, the students [] made a strike to Civil square. Civil Square was actually a public place in front of the headquarter of the government. Well, the act of having a strike at civil square is simply about to accelerate the speed of occupying the center. And it is also how this strike, in turn, triggered, the government starting trying to throw tear gas on the street. Because when students were trapped in Civil Square, they were trapped for more than a half a day. And those students who got arrested, they were locked in the police station for almost more than 40 hours. And by that time citizens, Hong Kong citizens, simply surrounded the headquarter of the government. And because the government, or by the time the chief executive of the SAR government learned, they were so scared or [] they had so [much] hatred toward the protester, they started to throw tear gas. And as a result, it only triggered more people coming on the street. And what allows is that most of the major roles in Hong Kong [] were adopted by Hong Kong citizens, because they felt like they could no longer bear the government acting in this way. But unfortunately, although the occupation started, and it has lasted for 79 days, [] the government made limited promises on political reform. And you can see in all these pictures how the police treated the protesters, and how well people formed their own community in those occupied areas; there are studying areas and there are lots of artwork in the occupied area, and there were also lots of tents. And some people might also play tennis on the street

So it almost came to an end. [] After 30 years of struggle, and the Umbrella Movement, there was another paradigm shift on struggling. People in Hong Kong, they start to think that if they want a better future, they have to make more sacrifices, not only the older generation but also the youngest. They’re willing to get into prison, so as to propel the progress of democratic reform. And that’s how, although there were clearances in different occupied areas, people started to think that there was more hope in the future. Because right after the movement, people will become more politically active in politics; they will form their own groups, they will have self-organized groups, they will try to join NGOs, or some people might also [] run for the up coming election. And that’s how the positive energy came. And this might spark change. 

So what is the most concerning part for Hong Kong people right now? It’s actually about three parts. One is that they would like to stop the proposal proposed by the government to be passed in the legislative council. The second one is that they have to consolidate [] civil society in Hong Kong, because most people in Hong Kong, they’ve also felt it would be a long term battle in Hong Kong. And the third part is that they would have to take a more regional perspective because Hong Kong’s problem is no longer only Hong Kong’s problem; it is also a problem of Taiwan, of Macau, of China, and the world. Because the fate of these places or these regions, they are [inaudible], they are interrelated. So only through cooperation with different places, with civil society in different regions, could the progress really be made.

Yang Jianli: Thank you. Thank you very much for sharing Hong Kong’s story with us. You have done a wonderful job. Quickly, so I have to ask two questions quickly. How old were you in 1997 when China took over Hong Kong?

Alex Chow: Seven years old 

Yang Jianli: You?

Lester Shum: Four years old 

Yang Jianli: Okay, last question, but it’s not least: What do you want the international community to do to support you?

Lester Shum: Many people told us that we actually don’t have hope to win in this battle against the Chinese government, or the Chinese Communist Party, because they’re just too powerful, and just too influential in a row that no one can stop them, and no one can put pressure on them. But that’s what Alex mentioned, that there is still hope in Hong Kong, there is still hope for us that we can still have a change, or we can prepare for change in Hong Kong. [] We believe that the Chinese government is on a very dangerous road, and as they propose, the economic bubbles will collapse one day. And then what will happen at that time, we will not know, no one will know. And what we can do, and what the International Committee could do, is to keep pressure or keep attention on on the problem of China, on the problem of Chinese human rights, on the problem of Tibet, on the problem of China or Macau or problem of Hong Kong and also Taiwan, Because these places are all influenced piously by the Chinese government. And these places’ fate is huddled tightly on the Chinese. And only through continuous social movement, calling attention towards the democratic movements in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and Tibet and China, can we prepare a hope for a change in the democratic movement to both Hong Kong, Tibet, and in China.

Yang Jianli: Thank you, Lester. One half minute to answer this question.

Alex Chow: Yeah, to everyone, just don’t lose hope; eyes on the prize. And just we have to fight hand in hand and then a better world will come.  We have to care for one another because our fate or our future is tightly connected. If one place collapses, it would trigger other places to suffer more.

Lester Shum: I truly believe that we have no chance or no space or no rights to withdraw hope. Look at who  the speakers are here? A girl who escaped from North Korea, a girl who escaped from a terrorist organization in Nigeria. What we are facing or what we are handling is just a little dish or a piece of cake in Hong Kong. We haven’t been sent to prison. We haven’t been sent to a death row. We haven’t become political prisoners. We don’t have any chance, we don’t have any space to retreat, or to lose hope. We must stay focused and stay hopeful for the democratic movement or democratic process in Hong Kong.

Yang Jianli: Thank you. I’m personally very encouraged by their message. Their message is very important. I see hope. I see hope. So please, if you can create any international forum for them to speak, do it. So I think the world needs to know, to understand the story of Hong Kong. Thank you very much. Thank you.

7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015

Speakers and Participants

Alex Chow

Former Secretary General of Hong Kong Federation of Students

Yang Jianli

Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, Tiananmen Square massacre survivor and President of Initiatives for China

Lester Shum

Former Deputy Secretary General of Hong Kong Federation of Students



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