Emily Lau Wai-hing, is a prominent liberal politician in Hong Kong who champions press freedom and human rights. A former journalist, she became the first woman directly elected to the Legislative Council of Hong Kong in the 1991 LegCo elections. She served as Legislative Councillor for the New Territories East throughout the 1990s and 2000s until she stepped down in 2016. She was until Decmber 2nd 2016, the chairperson of the Democratic Party, the flagship pro-democracy party.
Q: Do you believe we are living through a transition and if so, how would you define it?
I guess there has to be. There always are many changes going on and especially concerning Hong Kong with the deadline of 2047 approaching.
As you probably know, in 1997, Britain handed over Hong Kong back to China. Beijing, understanding that people in Hong Kong were very scared of the change, gave Hong Kong self-rule under “One country, two systems” but only for 50 years. In 1968, Richard Hughes wrote a book about Hong Kong Borrowed place, borrowed time. Well, the place isn’t borrowed any more but our freedoms may be on borrowed time. Next year, we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of our return to China. Only 30 years left. So, we are always in a state of flux and change, especially after the Umbrella Movement.
Those events really have led to the awakening of the younger generation and others as well.
Q: In a Financial Times interview earlier this year, you are quoted saying: “It’s sad to see a city that was so vibrant, so prosperous, so full of energy, lose its ability to solve problems”. Could you please elaborate?
That is actually a quote from Prof. Yuen Kwok Yung of Hong Kong University. He was a member of the University Council and last year, the Council wanted to appoint a pro-vice-chancellor and were considering Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, a sympathiser of the “occupiers” and a friend and colleague of Benny Tai. This lead to fierce infighting within the Council and ultimately to Prof. Yuen’s resignation. When he left he said “In these few years, Hong Kong has lost its ability to solve problems”, by which he meant under the mandate of Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.
I agree with what he said and that is why I repeated it. This is not to say things are static.
Do you know that I am banned from going back to Mainland China? Well I am. I have been on a list for the last 20 odd years. Two days ago, Beijing announced that they will reconsider the ban and lift it. Beijing said we could now apply for the permit.
The thing is that I am a Chinese citizen. I should have the right to go to my own country. At the moment, I can’t even go to Macau! It isn’t right to ban me. So, if they now change their mind, I think it is about time! The thing about the Communist Government is that their system is very opaque. People enjoy second guessing them to try to understand what is going on, but in doing so, you are using your own rational and that nearly always fails. I have no idea why all of a sudden this changed.
I have told them this was wrong many times many times in the past, whenever they’ve come to Hong Kong, most recently when the Chair of the National People’s Congress, Zhang Dejiang, came to Hong Kong on May 18th this year.
The official purpose of the visit was “One Belt, One Road”, which nobody believed. The real purpose of the visit was to meet the four members of the pro-democracy movement, myself including, who were part of the delegation. But I don’t know more. Maybe Beijing decided to change their minds of the ban, then sent an envoy to Hong Kong, then nothing happened for months and now even Zhang Dejiang is quoted saying that during that meeting he mentioned that the Home Visa Permit situation could be resolved. So, things are changing, I guess.
This is going in the right direction but we don’t know how many people will apply and how many will be rejected if they do apply. What I see as a positive, if the band is truly in effect lifted, is that the elected pro-democracy officials would now be able to go and meet directly with officials in Beijing. Up to now, only pro-China officials have been able to do so.
Hong Kong is probably facing its darkest years since 1997, some because of Beijing, some because of Leung Chun-yin. So, it is important we are able to talk with people in Beijing directly. I have been told in the Past “Don’t worry Emily, they know what you think, they see you on TV all the time”. It is – to say it mildly – not the same.
Lifting the ban is only the beginning, what should follow is dialogue. Hopefully, a true lifting of the ban, should be a signal of liberation. Life is never that simple though. At the same time, Beijing attempted to reinterpret the Basic Law and has kicked out two members of the Hong Kong Congress, maybe soon three. Interpretation is difficult.
Q: I interviewed Kin-man Chan on Tuesday who was quite fatalistic about the current infighting of the various democratic movements in Hong Kong, the stepping down of the “old guard”. What is your take on this and the more militant, not to say violent stance of the younger members?
I disagree with that stance of course. Last night, I was at a dinner at Hong Kong University to speak on democracy and freedom. During the Q&A with the students, I got questions about Hong Kong independence and comments on the fact that we the old pro-democracy movement leaders were useless and too passive, that 30 years of non-violence hasn’t gotten us anywhere.
I told them: “Had it not been for us and the struggle during the last two decades, many people would be in jail, myself included, and I wouldn’t be able to talk to you here tonight. Do not underestimate what we have achieved. The fact that Hong Kong – in spite of all the pressures – is still a free city and compared to many cities around the world, we are still safe and peaceful, is a huge achievement.
If you want violence, do you think you can be more violent than the Police? More violent than the People’s Liberation Army? And most importantly, do you think you will have the support of the people? I have been elected seven times. If I tell you, I know my people, you should accept that I am talking from authority. Most people do not want to sacrifice. They don’t want independence. And they don’t want violence.
If you want it, fine! You are adults. You just need to take responsibility for your actions but if your actions don’t find support from the people here, how are you going to succeed?”
They were pretty angry. Big deal!
The price to enjoy freedom is eternal vigilance and we have spent more than two decades being vigilant under tremendous pressure. That is why I can’t go to Mainland China. If we are not careful, we will love all these things in the matter of days. You don’t have to look to China to see an example of this. The example is much closer to Hong Kong, it’s called Macau.
Q: So, is your objective still democracy for Hong Kong?
The objective is a high degree of autonomy under One Country, Two Systems.
Personally, I believe in self-determination which is why I asked Mrs. Thatcher that question way back when. The Hand-over was the perfect time for self-determination. However, there just wasn’t much support at the time for it. What Hong Kongers did was immigrate. That is always what they do.
I don’t believe democracy is achievable under Chinese rule, unless they change.
Beijing has agreed to give Hong Kong democracy under One Country, Two Systems. It is stated in the Basic Law. They would say they offered it last year, which we rejected. What they offered was universal suffrage : one person, one vote to choose the Chief Executive. But, there needs to be a nominating committee and you only can have 2 or 3 candidates. We said “Forget it!” because that’s not genuine democracy, one which contains no unreasonable limitations and gives the voters genuine choice.
Beijing wants control.
In March next year, we will have elections for our Chief Executive but only 1200 people can vote and those 1200 are chosen by 250’000 people out of 7M inhabitants. A British legacy. I always wondered if this system was so good why the British didn’t have it in the United Kingdom…
Q: How optimistic are you about democracy in China?
It is really up to the Mainlanders. If Hong Kong can remain free and some day truly democratic, it will help but it is up to the people in China.
Apart from being the Chairperson of the Democratic Party, I am also a member of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group. We formed the group in 2007 to support Human Rights lawyers in Mainland China. Sometimes when they are allowed to come to Hong Kong, they always tell us how important it is to maintain Hong Kong as an example of Rule of Law, with an independent judiciary, etc.
When I step down from my political position, this is how I will continue to serve, even if I can never set foot on Mainland China.
Q: If Hong Kong is a beacon of democratic hope to Mainland Chinese, maybe Western democracies have been examples to Hong Kong. What is your opinion about the rise of Populism in the West?
We have it here too. It is an infectious disease which spreads everywhere.
Actually, in the last two day, the Legislative Council is debating an issue referred to as the “Bogus refugee crisis”. Hong Kong isn’t party to the Global Refugee Convention but we are party to the Torture Convention. Some people do come even though they can’t receive asylum but they can make torture claims. There are more than 10’000 cases in Hong Kong. The Legislative is saying that many of these are bogus claims and we should kick them all out. Some people love it. There is always someone to get behind ultra-righteous claims of this nature, and always a politician to put them forward.
I understand why some people can get angry about this and that is why, I believe Angela Merkel is so courageous. It is very important for us to be compassionate.
In the 1980s, Hong Kong faced the issue of the Vietnamese Boat People. At the time, the British took a lot of people in even though many Hong Kongers were unhappy. In 1991, I stood for election and there was a boat people camp in my constituency. I reminded my electors at the time that we are a land of refugees. Our parents fled Mainland China for economic and political reasons and the British took us in. We should therefore show the same compassion to people wishing to come today.
Q: In 2008, and during the 2012 constitutional reform package, you seemed to have softened your stance towards Beijing. Am I right in thinking that and if so could you explain to me why this change in strategy?
I apologized for this because the people who said that were right, in the sense that I always said that I was for democracy, all or nothing.
China on the other hand, always said that if democracy came, it could only come gradually, step by step. For years, our demands for full democracy were met by resounding “Nos” from Beijing. In 2012, they offered something instead of nothing. So, we took it.
People felt I had gone back on my word. I accepted the criticism.
However, it was then Beijing a couple years later that said that because we had agreed to a compromise, because we had accepted their demand of gradual and orderly progress, they were now willing to give full democracy. Unfortunately, Beijing’s understanding of full democracy is the system I described previously: universal suffrage yes but after a selection committee.
Because, that promise was not what we wanted, we voted against it and we are back to asking for full democracy.
Q: What is your feeling about the younger generation’s more militant approach to politics?
It is not up to me to choose. IfF they are open to dialogue, then we can work more together. If not, so be it. There are many people in Hong Kong who do not like me. I accept that.
If they wish to fight for independence, I believe they will fail. Look at Singapore. Why did Singapore achieve independence? Because Malaysia kicked it out. China is not going to that with Hong Kong.
We are very dependent on China, for the water we drink, the food we eat. How can Hong Kong be fully independent from China?
However, this should not stop them wanting independence and saying so. That is the whole point. They are free to do so.
Q: Do you think things will get worse before getting better?
Maybe, but that is our responsibility, all of us here in Hong Kong, to preserve things as they are and improve them if possible.
 One of the main instigators of the Umbrella Movement
 Considered the 3rd highest ranking official in China
 in December 1984, after signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher flew to Hong Kong to give a press conference. Lau questioned Thatcher, "Prime Minister two days ago you signed an agreement with China promising to deliver over 5 million people into the hands of a communist dictatorship. Is that morally defensible, or is it really true that in international politics the highest form of morality is one’s own national interest?" Thatcher replied by saying that everyone in Hong Kong was happy with the agreement, and Lau may be a solitary exception.
 In 2008, however, Lau would soften her stance (and lose a number of her more radical supporters) when she agreed to merge her Frontier group with the Democrats, and in 2012 she became chairperson of the party she had once shunned as too mainstream.