In this interview, Canon Stuart Mann, the diocese’s Director of Communications, interviews Bishop Patrick Yu, the area bishop of York-Scarborough, about the demonstrations in Hong Kong. These are Bishop Yu’s personal views and do not represent an official position of the Diocese of Toronto.
How did Hong Kong come to be a part of China?
In 1984, there was an historic breakthrough between Britain and China. Under the agreement, Hong Kong would become part of China in 1997. Britain would continue to minister Hong Kong as a Crown Colony until that time; afterwards, a lot of the freedoms and laws that Hong Kong enjoyed under the British would remain, such as freedom of assembly, freedom to strike, freedom of expression, freedom of religion – all these were guaranteed for 50 years. As well, the judiciary would remain independent and the court of final appeal would be in Hong Kong, not China. So today there is a substantial amount of freedom in Hong Kong, and we need to realize that. However, the joint declaration is very clear that Hong Kong would not be independent – it would be a part of China, and certain rights would be retained by China’s government.
What do you think about Britain’s response to the demonstrations?
It’s important to point out that the 1984 agreement and the Basic Law, which is the constitution of Hong Kong, gives a far higher degree of democracy to Hong Kong than the British were ever willing to give. The question today is, “Who gets to elect the Chief Executive of Hong Kong?” Under British rule, his equivalent would have been the Governor of Hong Kong, and the Governor was never elected; he was appointed by the British government. So it is somewhat disingenuous for Britain to criticize the situation today, which they helped draft, and to urge the Hong Kong people to seek far more participation than they were ever willing to give.
Can you help us to understand how the Chief Executive gets elected, as this seems to be the focus of the demonstrations?
Up to now, it’s the 1,200 people in Hong Kong’s Electoral College who elects the Chief Executive. In Hong Kong’s Basic Law and in the Sino-British agreement, half of the Electoral College was elected by districts, and half were elected by 28 “functional constituencies” such as finance, industry and labour. It’s very clear that the election of the Chief Executive by the Electoral College has to be ratified by the central government (China). The central government appoints this person.
The issue is, China and Hong Kong have negotiated so that at a later time everybody gets to vote for the Chief Executive. I think these negotiations to determine how to vote for the Chief Executive have gone very badly. Hong Kong is a young democracy and the legislative assembly has behaved rather badly. In the months before the demonstrations, there was a very long period of filibusters, where no decisions could be made. There seemed to be a demonstration every week about something.
In the legislative assembly, there is a group that wants to do away with a nominating committee which will replace the Electoral College. Anybody can then be eligible for election, and therefore appointment by China, to the office of Chief Executive. But China has a very large stake in Hong Kong. China wants Hong Kong to do well and it has generally acceded to the requests of Hong Kong’s legislative assembly. The assembly cannot come to a consensus, so the positions on both sides have hardened. In China’s words, the person elected to be the Chief Executive “must love Hong Kong and must love China.” In other words, they do not want somebody who is an agitator. In previous cases where positions have hardened and suspicion has escalated, the Chinese government has exercised its constitutional right to set some limits.
Why has the situation reached the stage of mass demonstrations?
There’s a whole generation of people in Hong Kong who only know the face of democracy without any memory of the olden days. I think these are the birth pains of a young democracy. The leaders of the demonstrations have one speed – full speed forward. I don’t see any movement on their part that leads to anything but disaster, so I’m pretty worried.
I want to take another guess at why the protestors are so angry. Hong Kong has done very well and prospered under the British. When China took over, the economy got even better. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the wealth has not been equally shared. Wealthy people have benefitted the most because they have moved the manufacturing part of their businesses from Hong Kong to China, where labour costs are lower. Those who have property in Hong Kong have seen their property values rise 20 or 30 times. But there is a whole group of people in Hong Kong, in the middle class and lower, who are working very hard to stay competitive but they see their hope of having their own house recede further and further away. So I think a lot of the anger is about a system that disproportionately rewards the rich and there is little social mobility. I think the anger is fed by the hopelessness or the social disparity. The lesson for us is that this is happening in North America, too. It is not just a China or Hong Kong problem, it is our problem as well and we must address it.
Could the demonstrations in Hong Kong lead to excessive force by the Chinese government, as happened in Tiananmen Square?
Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong is responsible for its own internal policing. The People’s Liberation Army is stationed there, but it’s very clear under the Basic Law that their function is defense. Is another Tiananmen Square possible? Of course it’s possible. But you have to believe that the Chinese government has some wisdom. I can imagine a scenario in which it pays them to intervene to restore order, that the benefit outweighs the disaster, and that is why I get really nervous about foreign governments and citizens applying one-sided pressure. I think our knee-jerk reaction has been, “Whoever is in the protest has to be right, and whatever is in government has to be wrong.” There are many things wrong with governments, but looking at Libya and Syria and even Ukraine, egging these people on without ourselves paying any price, we push them and give them a false sense of support that we’re not able to deliver.
What can people in the Diocese of Toronto do?
Archbishop Johnson has written to the Chinese congregations here, encouraging them to pray, and I would certainly agree with that. In my own discussions with the immigrant community, most of the people from Hong Kong are from my generation, so they’re a bit puzzled by the anger and the demands of the protestors. The Diocese of Toronto has no official political position and neither does the church in Hong Kong. Like the church of Hong Kong, we support all reasonable and legal ways of protest and want people to dialogue. I understand the passion of the protestors, but I don’t think sound-bite reactions are helpful. Perhaps Chinese people here can explain to their friends the different layers of the issues and let people do what they feel is right.
Learn more about the Basic Law of Hong Kong at http://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/facts/index.html and the Sino-British agreement at http://www.legislation.gov.hk/blis_ind.nsf/CurAllEngDoc/034B10AF5D3058DB482575EE000EDB9F?OpenDocument.