Joseph Lian, HKEJ and HK independence: the wind has changed

August 03, 2016 18:31
Joseph Lian led the HKEJ newsroom when Hong Kong was heading fast to the 1997 handover. He has always been a valued asset to the newspaper for his insights and devotion. Photo: HKEJ

Joseph Lian Yizheng’s last column in the Hong Kong Economic Journal makes a rather touching read.

His 25-year bond with the newspaper started in 1991 when he, while still working at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, became a co-contributor. I didn’t know him in person but his insights and sagacity left a deep impression on me.

After the newspaper’s then chief editor retired in early 1996, I suggested Dr. Lian (he has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Minnesota) as the person to lead the newsroom. He was then the deputy dean of the HKUST Business School.

We successfully poached him from the university to take up the top post at HKEJ when Hong Kong was heading fast to its 1997 handover.

In the ensuing decades Dr. Lian assumed different posts in the newspaper, from chief editor and lead writer to political columnist after the transfer of the newspaper’s ownership.

He has always been a much valued asset to HKEJ for his astute observations and expertise in political and economic analysis. His logic when commenting on current affairs is unassailable and meticulous.

He said in the last column that he didn’t study journalism in college and writing was never his expertise.

I still remember vividly how he, as the chief editor, drafted editorials: he seldom stepped out of his office and would spend eight to nine hours doing the job.

He said he had to spend no less than five working days and 13 to 14 hours per day in recent years to finish his two columns for the newspaper each week. Both are about 4,000 characters in length.

We know his fame and cult following are well deserved.

Changing climate

Dr. Lian has never toed the official line in his views yet that doesn’t mean he opposed the establishment simply for the sake of doing so. Proof of this is that he joined the Central Policy Unit, the SAR government’s top think tank, after leaving the newspaper in 1998.

But sadly, he was expelled by the Tung Chee-hwa administration in July 2004, not for his incompetence but because he took part in a mass pro-democracy rally that infuriated the top leader.

The incident was a sad reminder that since 1997, when the city is no longer run by the Brits, political allegiance has become paramount in the new special administrative region.

Noticeably, the government’s tolerance of dissenting voices has gone; it puts politics ahead of merit as the new yardstick in appointments.

This is the underlying change in the city’s political climate post-handover.

Dr. Lian began his “self-exile” after he left the Tung regime and became a master of sailing.

HKEJ’s new management, worried about the wave of exits by columnists following Richard Li Tzar-kai’s acquisition, approached him in 2006 and invited him to return as the newspaper’s lead writer.

The HKEJ management and its editorial stance remained largely stable until after Leung Chun-ying took office in 2012, and since then Hong Kong has been bogged down in an abyss of social division.

In 2013 the newspaper was struck by a wave of resignations and personnel changes.

Then chief editor Chan King-cheung was demoted to head the digital team and several renowned and outspoken columnists like Yau Ching-yuen also decided to leave. The entire editorial team underwent a thorough reshuffle.

The new management told Dr. Lian this March that they want to cut his fee by 60 percent due to “operating difficulties”.

Then, in less than six months, we hear the news that his column has been suspended.

Obviously HKEJ is not immune to the prevailing climate and the chief editor has the absolute discretion over editorial and personnel affairs, including whether to keep a column or not.

But the way a devoted, veteran commentator, who has been serving the newspaper for a quarter of a century, was told to leave in a short e-mail because of some “overhaul and business streamlining” can only make one shiver.

No matter how unspeakable the real reason is or what kind of pressure the current chief editor is being faced with, the manner she turned away Dr. Lian was utterly disrespectful and to some extent, a disgrace to journalistic values.

Dissident views ought to be respected

Occupy Central was a call-out to all news commentators. Yet even if they were intent on being objective, the authorities still, indiscriminately, labeled them troublemakers once they showed any approval of or sympathy for the Occupy organizers and participants, who had always been laudably rational and moderate with their demands.

The government has unequivocally drawn the line that opposing the election reform bill is tantamount to opposing the central authorities.

Leung Chun-ying has effectively made a distinction between people by political affiliation and discord and taken on democrats in such a combative way like a conflict with mortal foes.

Not only is universal suffrage not in sight, the dissension in society has also become nearly irreconcilable.

And all these ultimately become nutrition for separatism which has taken root among youngsters.

Dr. Lian feels deep sympathy for these embittered youngsters, and interprets their calls for independence as propositions to prepare for the 2047 eventuality. He further suggests the concept of “jurisprudential Hong Kong independence”.

He said even some of his friends felt bewildered by his independence-leaning stance, but I can understand his rationale.

If I were still in charge of HKEJ, I would never suspend Dr. Lian’s column simply for his strikingly different or even “dissident” views.

Rather, I would choose to convey our editorial stance, like in an editor’s note, for an open, fair debate, and let readers make their own verdict on the plurality of opinions, which was exactly the philosophy of the newspaper when it was founded.

HK independence a red rag to a bull

Still, the question of how to safeguard the freedoms that Hong Kong enjoys while ensuring the continuity of the established legal regime of governance baffles me.

Hongkongers are mostly law-abiding and seeking to turn the territory into an independent political entity is illegal and runs counter to Beijing’s rule.

Those who dread chaos and Beijing’s sharp-elbow tactics will find it hard to identify with calls for independence, which is like a red rag to a bull.

The Hong Kong independence movement never caught the public’s attention nor became a threat to the authorities throughout the 153 years of colonial rule, yet how come it has ignited such estrangement towards China in less than two decades since the handover?

These are things that Beijing and its local underlings must reflect on.

Beijing’s brazen meddling in the running of the city and the strangling of Hong Kong’s own system have sowed the seeds and, unsurprisingly, the younger generation, disaffected and disenfranchised, now want to split.

However radical their propositions are, they deserve our bit of empathy and understanding.

Still, when the Basic Law is functioning, any reference to Hong Kong independence, even purely for theoretical debate, may lead to more schism and hatred, let alone a desire to seek it in action.

The plain truth is that any calls for Hong Kong independence will dissipate, if Beijing can honor its words, discipline itself and respect the territory’s own system.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 2.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Joseph Lian would spend seven to eight hours each day in the office to compose the newspaper's editorials. Photo: HKEJ

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal