Tell good HK stories. Heal the anguish. Let’s do both in 2023

December 22, 2022 08:24
Photo: Reuters

There are good and bad stories in every society. Political leaders naturally want to promote the good ones. But does that mean burying the bad ones? I wonder about this whenever Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu asks people to tell good stories about Hong Kong.

Good can only shine when there is bad. Beauty needs ugliness to make it beautiful. As a longtime journalist I have always believed an honest media needs to put the truth first.

Lee believes Hong Kong can lure talented foreigners who earn high salaries by singing the city’s praises. But, as a local columnist said, the world doesn’t revolve around Hong Kong.

Many places, such as Singapore, want the talented. These people have choices. They will examine the upside and downside of Hong Kong before making a life-changing decision.

As a Hong Kong-born I know the city has good stories to tell. But, as a journalist who covered the 2019 social unrest, I know the good stories cannot be told well without admitting the undercurrent of discontent that still runs through the city.

Two Hong Kong judges alluded to this recently in rulings related to the 2019 protests. District Court Judge Kwok Wai-kin, when convicting four pro-democracy activists from the now disbanded Student Politicism, rejected the defense argument the youths had put up street booths last year after society had already returned to peace.

Kwok said the case’s details showed society was only peaceful on the surface. In another case involving the 2019 Polytechnic University siege Judge Ernest Lin Kam-hung, in jailing eight young protesters, said they were not evil but were influenced by a polarized society.

Lee himself admitted on a radio show his administration needs to gain the trust of Hong Kong’s young people to unify society. He believes he can gain their trust through good governance. I don’t think that alone will extinguish the anguish many young people still feel three years after the social unrest.

Police arrested over 10,000 people, about 1,000 have been jailed, and many are still awaiting their fate. The lingering anguish, Covid restrictions, and the national security law have caused many talented Hongkongers to emigrate.

Hong Kong’s numerous assets include its excellent transport system, world-class mix of restaurants, scenic harbor, country parks, role as a connector between the mainland and the world, and an independent judiciary.

But it’s hard to tell good stories when foreign media are fixated on the erosion of civil society, media freedom, and free speech. Western media have questioned Hong Kong’s judicial independence after Lee asked Beijing to rule if a media tycoon facing collusion charges could hire a British lawyer even though the city’s top court greenlighted the lawyer.

It wasn’t that long ago when the world marveled at Hong Kong’s unique status as a semi-democracy under one country, two systems that tolerated peaceful protests, a vocal opposition, and criticism of both the Hong Kong and mainland governments. Talented foreigners flocked to the city.

The world credited Hong Kong as a success story, thanks mainly to Beijing’s hands-off policy. That changed after the opposition rejected Beijing’s August 2014 political reform plan as fake democracy, triggering the so-called Umbrella Movement which saw thousands occupying the city’s streets.

I had urged support for the reform plan because I feared if Hongkongers rejected this first step towards greater democracy Beijing would offer nothing more. I was proven right.

Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive at the time, oversaw the non-violent ending of the occupation with police clearances and court orders sought by outside groups. Hongkongers resumed normal lives until 2019 when Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the chief executive at the time, proposed her ill-fated extradition bill which included sending Hongkongers to the mainland for trial.

I had supported many government policies, including the joint Hong Kong-mainland immigration clearance at the West Kowloon high-speed railway, which I felt was sensible. But I could not bring myself to support Lam’s extradition bill. There was no credible argument for my support.

Hong Kong’s business sector was the first to express concern about the bill. It was only after Lam ignored the business sector, the one million, and then two million Hongkongers who marched peacefully against the bill that the so-called black-clad protesters turned violent.

Imagine if Lam had never proposed the bill or had withdrawn it after peaceful opposition. There would be no national security law. Tens of thousands would not have emigrated. Thousands of young people would not have been arrested or jailed. There would be no Hong Kong protest song mistaken as Chinese National anthem at sporting events. The US would not have sanctioned Chief Executive Lee and other top officials.

Media reports said Security Secretary Chris Tang Ping-keung will decide whether to prosecute the remaining 6,000 young people arrested during the 2019 social unrest.

To heal Hong Kong’s divided society, I hope he will only prosecute those who endangered lives and free the rest. That would be a great Hong Kong story to tell in 2023. I am sure Western media will give it positive coverage.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.