Magazine November 11, 2019, Issue

Fighting for Hong Kong

Tanya Chan at the United Nations in Geneva, September 2019 (UN Watch)
Tanya Chan, one among the millions

For the past several months, the people of Hong Kong have been massing in the streets, protesting for their democratic rights. They have turned out in their millions. It’s hard to focus on millions of people — how about one? And a prominent person, at that? She is Tanya Chan, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and a democracy leader.

In September, she was in Geneva, testifying before the U.N. Human Rights Council. She had been invited to do so by UN Watch, a non-governmental organization accredited to the U.N. The Chinese government tried to stop her appearance. They told the U.N. that Chan was a “convicted criminal” — which she is. She was found guilty of participating in democratic protests, essentially. More on this in due course.

Before the Human Rights Council, Chan testified about police brutality in Hong Kong: myriad physical abuses, including sexual abuses. The police call protesters “cockroaches,” she said, meaning that “violence is regarded as acceptable pest control.” She further said that police brutality is “a direct result of the lack of democracy in Hong Kong,” as “the government is not held accountable for its endorsement” of the brutality.

In her testimony, Chan could not help asking, “Why is China sitting here, as a member of this human-rights council?”

She is a Hong Konger, born and bred. Talking with her, I ask a personal question — one concerning identity: “Do you feel like a Hong Konger? Like a Chinese person? Or some blend?” She answers, firmly, “I am definitely a Hong Konger.” She was educated at Sacred Heart Canossian College and then at the University of Hong Kong, where she earned a law degree.

Chan was in her mid 20s in 1997, when the “handover” occurred — the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from Great Britain to (Communist) China. I have another personal question: How did she feel? Excited, hopeful, nervous — or some blend? The answer, this time, is “blend.”

She liked the concept of “one country, two systems” — this was the promise. Hong Kong would be part of China, but it would maintain its own, democratic system. The city would be governed by “our small constitution,” as Chan says: the Basic Law. While she looked forward to this, she was nervous about how it would pan out: The concept of “one country, two systems” had never been implemented anywhere else.

In 2006, she was a founding member of the Civic party, which is a liberal-democratic party — aiming at free elections, the rule of law, civil liberties, and all the rest. The father of democracy in Hong Kong is widely acknowledged to be Martin Lee, whom many of us have esteemed for decades. He is now in his early 80s. When I mention him, Tanya Chan says, with delight, that she has just seen him.

It was in 2008 that Chan was first elected to the Legislative Council. She represents Hong Kong Island. She is sometimes known as “the Zhou Xun of the Civic party” — Zhou Xun being a very famous Chinese actress and singer, about the same age as Chan.

Before the massive demonstrations of 2019, which have attracted worldwide attention, there was the Umbrella Movement of 2014. This, too, was a democratic movement. Its aim was to stop the erosion of electoral rights in Hong Kong. It got its name because people used umbrellas as shields, to ward off pepper spray and tear gas, coming from the police.

Tanya Chan was a leader in this movement. She was one of the Umbrella Nine, charged, convicted, and sentenced for their involvement. The general charge was “public nuisance.” Chan, with the other eight, was to be sentenced in April 2019, but her sentencing was delayed until June.

As she explains, she went for a physical exam, “because I thought I would be put into prison for quite some time, and I hoped that I could at least comfort my mum that I would be fine in prison,” which is to say, in good enough health. It was discovered that she had a brain tumor, the size of a golf ball. She said to the public, “I will try my best to treat my condition and walk with everybody along what could be a very long journey to democracy.”

Chan underwent five hours of surgery, followed by 30 sessions of radiotherapy. Today, she says, she is fully recovered.

When June came around, she was sentenced to eight months in prison, suspended for two years. The Hong Kong branch of Amnesty International said — about the treatment of the Umbrella Nine altogether — “This is the latest dark chapter in the curtailing of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Hong Kong.”

If Tanya Chan is again charged and convicted, she will have to serve the original eight months and then whatever the new sentence is. Therefore, “I need to be more careful,” she says. She wants to participate in all the activities of the democracy movement, but she will have to be “selective,” as she says.

When she speaks on the streets, she is something to behold, as you can see in videos: Pretty and feminine, she is also feisty and fearless, hollering for her rights, and those of her fellow citizens.

The protests of 2019 were sparked by an extradition bill, which would have sent Hong Kongers, and foreigners arrested in Hong Kong, to the mainland for justice — which is no kind of justice. The bill was eventually withdrawn, but the protests continue. So, what do they want now?

Four things, Chan says. First, they want an independent commission, to investigate “the whole extradition-bill saga,” as Chan puts it, “including police brutality.” Second, they want the government to stop using the word “riots” to describe the demonstrations.

Rioting is a very serious charge in Hong Kong, subjecting a person to as much as ten years in prison. The U.S. president was not helpful in this regard. In August, a reporter asked Donald Trump, “Are you concerned by reports that the Chinese army may be preparing to intervene in Hong Kong against the demonstrators?” Trump answered as follows:

Well, something is probably happening with Hong Kong, because, when you look at, you know, what’s going on, they’ve had riots for a long period of time. And I don’t know what China’s attitude is. Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that. But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China. They’ll have to deal with that themselves. They don’t need advice.

Third, Hong Kong’s democracy protesters want amnesty for all those who have been arrested while peacefully demonstrating. And fourth, they want “universal suffrage.” Ordinarily, this means voting rights for women, minorities, and so on. In the context of Hong Kong, it means the right to elect all of those who govern the city — elect them directly.

(As it stands, the chief executive — who is the equivalent of a governor — is selected by a committee. And half the Legislative Council is elected through “functional constituencies” — interest groups, such as trades — rather than through geographical constituencies. Tanya Chan’s Hong Kong Island is an example of a geographical constituency. The present structure has a pro-Beijing effect.)

I ask Chan, “Will the Chinese Communist Party ever accept your fourth demand?” She gives a laugh and says, “Well, it’s promised, and it is written clearly in our Basic Law.”

From afar, I say, it looks like Hong Kong is “an independent-minded, stubborn child, whom a dictatorial parent” — namely, Beijing — “wants to bring to heel.” My phrase “independent-minded” sets off a little alarm in Chan.

The word “independence,” she says, is “very, very sensitive” in Hong Kong at the moment. And “independent” is “a very sensitive adjective.” Nevertheless, “we’re like a very stubborn child, as you have said. We enjoyed a lot of good things before the handover — for example, judicial independence and freedom of expression — and we have appreciated and treasured these core values.”

(It is not always possible to avoid the word “independence,” or “independent” — as in “judicial independence” and “independent commission.”)

I ask Chan to play psychologist, if she could: a national, or municipal, psychologist. What is the city’s current mood? With a laugh, she says she will try a diagnosis. Then she turns dead serious, of course. “The people are very tense — under stress — as they have been for several months, and that includes the government, as well as ordinary citizens. Dramatic things are happening each and every week, and no one knows how it will end.”

Will it end in “a very drastic way”? That’s what Chan wonders, and what many wonder. And it is not hard to imagine what she means by “very drastic way.”

Thirty years ago, the ruling Communists in Beijing committed the Tiananmen Square massacre in that city. “Hong Kong people don’t want our democratic movement to end like June 4th,” Chan says. (This was the date of the massacre in 1989.) “We, of course, hope that the Chinese government — thanks to attention from the international community — will not send the People’s Liberation Army into Hong Kong to clear up this mess for the Hong Kong government. This is what the older generation, like me, is trying to avoid.”

(We have a bit of a laugh over “older generation”: Chan is not yet 50, and plenty youthful. And yet, the Hong Kong movement is stocked with twentysomethings.)

Very interested in events in Hong Kong are the people in Taiwan. “We’re like sisters,” Chan observes. Hong Kong was supposed to be a model for Taiwan. The Hong Kong example was supposed to reassure Taiwanese about life within China, as Chan explains. See how “one country, two systems” can work? Come on in, Taiwan, the water’s fine. Needless to say, the water has not turned out to be fine.

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Tanya Chan what she, and other democrats in Hong Kong, would like from the outside world, especially the United States. Beijing huffs that others must keep out of China’s “internal affairs,” and not a few in the West agree with them. Chan says, “At least put pressure on the Chinese government to keep their promises” — the promises they made at the time of the handover. “I think that’s fair and legitimate.”

Further, if China is to sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council, shouldn’t they respect human rights, and abide by the international covenants they have signed, concerning human rights? Again: fair and legitimate.

There are many, many other things to say, but we have time for one more word. What will it be? Tanya Chan says this: “Hong Kong is a lovely place and is my homeland” — interesting word in the context of Hong Kong: “homeland” — “but, unfortunately, because of developments in recent years, some of my friends are moving away. I hope that people who support freedom, democracy, and human rights will pay more attention to what is happening in Hong Kong and support us.”

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