Fighting for the Underdog, or Selling Out to Beijing?


Elsie Tu has already seen one Communist takeover: As a British missionary in China when Mao Tse-tung’s forces won a bitter civil war in 1949, she was swept into Hong Kong in the tide of refugees fleeing upheaval.

Now, Tu is preparing for another takeover. This time, she’s on the side of the Chinese government, as the city those refugees made into a glittering business center braces for change after China reclaims it July 1. After the hand-over, the 83-year-old grass-roots activist will join a select group of Beijing-approved billionaires and business leaders to make laws and advise China on running Hong Kong.

The switch from underdog to elite, Hong Kong subversive to China supporter, is an unexpected one for the white-haired school supervisor who has been a longtime fighter for democracy and justice for Hong Kong’s underprivileged. But for her, it’s all about keeping things fair. When Tu lost her legislative seat in last year’s elections through the democratic process she fought for, she denounced the race as “nonsense” and “rigged.”

Luckily for her, Beijing agreed--the elections had been held under new rules that China did not approve--so Tu got a second chance. In December, a Beijing-backed committee appointed a select group of shadow lawmakers to replace the elected legislature, and Tu is the only expatriate.

Is she an opportunist or optimist?

“I’m not for China,” Tu says with schoolmarmish precision. “I’m not for Britain. I’ve always been for the people of Hong Kong and for justice. I will do the work I’ve always done and stand for the people who get a raw deal.”


Tu also represents the accommodations and improvisations that many here are facing as they adjust to the prospect of life under Chinese rule.

“I don’t think things can be worse than under the British 20 years ago,” she says. Back then, people had to pay bribes just to get their trash taken away or to get the mail delivered, and the colonial government exercised powers to detain and deport people with minimal evidence, she says.

It is partly due to her efforts, even Tu’s critics concede, that the Hong Kong government is now clean and accountable. And Tu believes she needs a legislative seat to help keep it that way.

Tu, formerly Elsie Elliott, has been a fighter since she left Newcastle, England, and went to China as a missionary in 1948. Her photo album reveals a plainly dressed, athletic woman with a sincere, toothy smile and a passing resemblance to British actress Emma Thompson. But it gives little hint of the stubborn courage that made her stick to her idea of how to get what’s right--the quality that people referred to when they called her a gadfly, a busybody, a heroine--and now, a hypocrite.

Her struggles were just beginning when she was forced to leave China after the 1949 Communist victory because missionaries were thought to be spies. In the five years after the war, nearly 1 million people streamed into the territory, settling in flimsy squatters’ huts in Hong Kong’s rugged hills. Tu eventually left both the church group and, later, her missionary husband, because of “incompatibility.” On her own, she set up a school for refugee children in an army tent and installed herself in a tiny 8-foot-square shack next door.

One young Chinese man living in the camp was drawn by strains of music to the door of her squatter-village church; he would become her husband nearly 25 years later, and the tent school would blossom into the Mu Kuang English School with 1,500 students. Now she and Andrew Tu run the school together on another site and live in a small apartment above it.

Over the years, Elsie Tu became known as a reliable fixture in a transient place. Unlike legions of British colonials who aspired to own houses on the crown of elite Victoria Peak, she lived in squatter villages, church kitchens and schoolhouses. While her compatriots filled boardrooms and the tearooms of grand hotels, Tu used her privilege as a white person in Hong Kong to launch a one-woman campaign against the city’s widespread corruption. She took pictures of police supervising payoffs to gang members and gave the photos to the press, sparking the creation of a special force that cleaned up the notoriously corrupt police and curbed the criminal gangs, called triads.

“The triads wouldn’t touch a European--that’s why I took up the fight,” she says. “They say, if I was Chinese, I’d have been murdered.”

Tu is also a mediator, her office always filled with people seeking help with problems ranging from how to rescue wives stranded in China to where to get a welfare check. But she is not known as a sellout. So why the apparent turnaround now?

“People have called me all sorts of things,” she muses, “but it’s the British government that is hypocritical.” Tu picks up speed, reciting a grievance often heard in Hong Kong. “Why did they wait until China is taking over to get rid of their draconian laws and introduce democracy--things I’ve been fighting for since the 1960s? If China wasn’t taking over, we would still not have one elected seat.”

While she is grudgingly gratified that Britain introduced last-minute democratic reforms, even if, as she says, it’s only to cast an honorable aura over the colonial era, Tu quibbles with the result.

“It’s a false democracy,” she says. Under the 1992 electoral reforms introduced by Gov. Chris Patten, all citizens are allowed to vote for a “geographical representative” from their district, but professionals get an additional vote through their companies to elect representatives for their sectors. So, for example, an accountant gets two votes, while a homemaker or a retiree--the people Tu says need more of a voice--get only one. “If that’s fair, I’ll eat my hat,” Tu says.

China has promised to move Hong Kong to full democracy--now only one-third of the legislature is directly elected--and Tu hopes she can nudge Beijing toward a more representative vote. Her secret in triggering change, she says, has been finding the part of the system that will work for her. “I’m not one of those people who sticks to something no matter what,” she says. To find the right lever, “you have to be open-minded.”

Tu’s opponents claim that she would like the present system just fine if she had been able to keep her seat. But after 400 Beijing-approved committee members picked Tu to serve in the Provisional Legislature that will replace the elected legislature after China takes over, the man who beat her in the election cried foul.

“Last year, more than 50,000 people voted [in our district],” said Szeto Wah, a pro-democracy leader reviled by Beijing. He will lose his seat after the hand-over. “I won [in that election], and she lost. She says it was not fair. Now 400 people vote, and she thinks that is fair.”

Another democracy activist assesses Tu’s leaning toward Beijing this way: “Elsie is being used by the pro-China forces. It’s a shame, because she’s done so much for Hong Kong. But when Hong Kong’s history is written, she will be portrayed as a collaborator, not as a patriot.”

Tu is not the only unlikely figure to find a future on China’s side. David Akers-Jones, former secretary of Hong Kong’s civil service, became an advisor to the Chinese government, as did Gary Harilela, a leader of the ethnic Indian business community. Several prominent Hong Kong Chinese have discarded British passports and knighthoods to show loyalty to Beijing. Though their interests vary, nearly all bear criticism as sellouts.

Tu believes that she can work with Chinese leaders to ensure that Hong Kong’s underdogs aren’t forgotten. “People have been misled into thinking that something terrible is going to happen,” she says. “But I think that they’ll find most of the faces the same in the government and legislature, and that things won’t be much changed.”

Tu cites China’s promise to keep Hong Kong running the way it is for at least 50 years, and then adds her own pledge: “If things go wrong, I’ll continue to fight like I always have.”