Tsang Yok-sing

Maggie Farley is the Hong Kong bureau chief for The Times

For leftist politician Tsang Yok-sing, who was persecuted under colonial rule for his communist affinities, Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule means he is finally right. Tsang, 50, the chairman of Hong Kong’s largest pro-China party, has been a voice of China in Hong Kong since 1967, when young Red Guards shook the British-run territory with riots and bombs in the name of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. In a city that was capitalist, largely apolitical and full of refugees who had fled China’s chaos, his activities meant ostracism and harassment for him and his family.

His younger brother, Tsang Tok-sing, spent two years in prison for handing out leaflets at his high school, criticizing colonial education. Tsang’s sister went to jail for a month at age 15 for a small demonstration at her school. Now Tsang’s brother is the editor of the pro-China daily, Ta Kung Pao, and says that compared with the restrictions on expression under the British colonial government, Hong Kong has nothing to fear under Chinese rule.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 13, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 13, 1997 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
In last Sunday’s interview with Tsang Yok-sing, the wrong photograph was printed. The photo showed Tsang’s brother Tsang Tak-sing

Tsang is trying to see to that. As a member of the new Provisional Legislature, he must decide whether to back laws replacing old colonial restrictions on demonstrations and political groups, the same kind of laws that once targeted people like Tsang and his siblings. Today, the laws have the most impact on groups like the Democratic Party, which Beijing considers subversive and Tsang sees as his party’s biggest rival.

Erudite, thoughtful and good-humored, he is a respected spokesman for Beijing’s perspective. He has been the head of a “patriotic” school that propagates communist ideals for nearly 30 years, and has advised the Chinese government on Hong Kong’s transition. Yet, unlike many pro-China voices here, he’s not afraid to step away from the party line.


He has criticized the selection of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, saying that a businessman will face inevitable conflicts of interest. He questions whether the government should use the same laws used to suppress him in the 1960s to check his own rivals, now that the tables have turned.

Most telling, after the Chinese government’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Tsang despaired and considered leaving Hong Kong. He changed his mind, though his wife and daughter obtained Canadian citizenship.

It leads some to question his patriotism, though it is a question Tsang literally cannot answer. The ultimate reward of loyalty is Communist Party membership. The ultimate test of loyalty, since the party remains underground in Hong Kong, is to deny it.



Question: So do you find it ironic that you were harassed in the past for being patriotic and now you are being rewarded? That what was once taboo is now being accepted, even praised?

Answer: We’re not really being rewarded. We’d be glad if some of the unfair conditions are lifted. Perhaps in the past 10 years or so, there has been less reservation among parents in Hong Kong about sending their children to schools like ours. Before, it used to be only those parents who really supported our political stance who would send their children to our school.

Q: Since you--and your brother, too--have been targets of the old colonial restrictions of civil liberties, do you think these restrictions should be reinstated?

A: No, no way. People are, of course, saying that the new government, or China, is trying to reinstate what they call draconian colonial laws in Hong Kong. The laws we knew in the ‘50s and ‘60s--they were really draconian, they were really colonial.

But I must say, the Hong Kong government has made a lot of changes to the laws since the ‘70s . . . . In the past five or six years, the Hong Kong government has made a lot of amendments in the existing laws, saying these amendments were necessary to bring those laws into line with the International Covenant of Human Rights.

I don’t think we can really describe those laws as draconian now. You don’t send young people to prison for distributing anti-government leaflets in the schools, according to the laws of the 1990s. There are going to be demonstrations, right after the hand-over. Then the whole world will see that these civil liberties will still be there.

Q: Some people thought the signal the new Hong Kong government was sending by wanting to replace these restrictive laws was that Beijing or the Hong Kong government didn’t trust Hong Kong. Do you think that’s the case? What is the fear?

A: It’s not that the Chinese government doesn’t trust Hong Kong, but, in fact, the Chinese government doesn’t trust the British. The Chinese government suspected that the British were deliberately making a mess of the legal system in Hong Kong, making hasty changes to existing laws in these final years of their rule there, to make these things difficult for the new government.


I think that by the time C.H. Tung’s [Tung Chee-hua] government was formed, most people in the Chinese government no longer believed in these conspiracy theories.

But again, by that time, the positions of both sides had been so entrenched, I believe it was difficult for the Chinese simply to say, “Forget about the dispute, we believe that there’s nothing wrong with the recent amendments.”

Actually, the Chinese government sort of toned down, to a very large extent, their earlier demands.

Q: It seems like almost all that Gov. Chris Patten did in his five years is being dismantled. The restrictions on civil liberties he removed are being re-established; the legislature elected under the democratic reforms he introduced is being scrapped, and the millions of people allowed to vote in the last election cannot vote next time. And he caused a five-year-long argument with Beijing. So did Patten do anything of value or did he damage Hong Kong?

A: His biggest failure was that he was unable to really establish a working relationship with China, to build up trust . . . . The result has been rather detrimental to Hong Kong. You see, with this stand-off between Mr. Patten’s government and Beijing, simple matters became complicated, and complicated matters became impossible.

Q: Did he waste his time here then, if everything he did is being undone?

A: I don’t think that’s an accurate description. I don’t think everything he did will be undone, or is being undone. I think, for example, some of the changes he brought to the civil service in Hong Kong--requiring performance pledges--have been very much appreciated by the Hong Kong public. And I think it would be unwise for the new government to change back to the old style, to a colonial-style government.

As a whole, he has made the government more accountable, more open, more transparent to the public. And he sets an example with his Q&A; sessions in the Legislative Council, his public-hearing sessions. He even hosted radio phone-in programs. He did one this morning.


Q: Do you think that C.H. Tung will continue that?

A: I doubt very much. C.H. is a very different personality. But I think he has to build his own image of being open and accessible to the public in his own way. I can’t imagine him playing the role of disk jockey at the radio station like Mr. Patten did (laugh).

Q: How do you think the electoral arrangements are going to change?

A: We are going to have larger constituencies for the geographical elections. And that’s for sure, whether it is a so-called multiple-seat, single-vote system or some form of proportional representation.

I’m afraid the new arrangements will be seen as a sort of rolling-back, because Mr. Patten tried to make elections more democratic than they were meant to be.

This is another problem, sometimes described as the difference in what they call political culture. Because the Chinese way of doing business always implied that a lot goes without saying. The Chinese put a lot of emphasis on mutual understanding. We know what each other mean without putting it in black and white, whereas, of course, I believe the British are more legal-minded in the sense that a contract is just what the provisions in the document say. We sensed the problem during the first few meetings we had with Mr. Patten. It was very clear his idea was, well, as long as I work within the framework of the Basic Law, as long as no one can point to a specific provision in the Basic Law and say, you are not allowed by this provision to do that, then I can do what I want.

Q: So he sort of exploited the gray areas in the agreement with China ?

A: Yes, but you know, according to the Chinese, there is no gray area at all. All the gray areas actually had already been defined by this mutual understanding.

Q: Will the changes in the election format hurt the Democrats? Are they targeted to take away some of the Democrats’ seats, since they control over half the legislature?

A: No. I don’t think it would make a lot of difference, because the Democratic Party did win a few unexpected seats last time, but it was mainly because of very-- how shall I put it--very special coincidences. For example, several pro-China candidates competing against each other, and, therefore, someone from the other side won.

The idea behind the changes, I think, is not to favor large parties, not only the Democratic Party. I think the philosophy is that we do not want to have a majority party forming the ruling government. This is not the system in Hong Kong.

Q: After all the fuss over democracy in the last elections, just over one-third of registered voters turned out. That may be average for America, but after all the debate over expanding democracy here, not that high for Hong Kong. Were you disappointed by the turnout?

A: Well, no. We got less than 40% of the registered voters turning out. But it has always been like this. I would think we are not much worse than in other communities. After all, 1995 was only the second time we had direct elections.

Q: So do you think people in Hong Kong care about democracy?

A: Well, if you ask anyone, if you ask someone in the street, “Do you think we should have democracy,” then, of course, the answer is a definite yes. Because I think “democracy” itself is a good word, no one would say that democracy is bad. But the opinion surveys carried out by the government, and by other institutions as well, have indicated consistently that democracy is never ranked highest in the priority list of most people in Hong Kong. People are more concerned about livelihood issues--housing, their rent, their jobs, cost of living. These are more important.

Q: Earlier, we were talking about transparency and accountability. There has been a lot of discussion about the role of the Communist Party, which has a significant underground network here, and whether it should be open and its activities more accountable.

A: No, it’s not going to be open. Because I don’t think it’s going to do anybody any good. Because once it gets into the open, it has to prove its power. After all, it’s the most powerful political party in China--we are talking about the Chinese Communist Party. So if it makes an appearance in Hong Kong, it has to expand itself, it has to recruit new members, and it has to take part in all the public affairs. It has to take part in the elections.

I don’t think Hong Kong people feel comfortable at all with the Communist Party trying to seek seats in the legislature in Hong Kong. And if they do, if we have, say, half a dozen or perhaps more members in the legislature being party members, then people would start to worry, because no party in Hong Kong is nearly as powerful as the Communist Party.

No, I don’t think it would do anybody good.

Q: People say there are probably a couple of party members on [Chief Executive] C.H. Tung’s Executive Council [cabinet]. Would it matter?

A: (Laugh) I don’t know. That’s everybody’s guess. Even if these people are Communist Party members, there is no point in coming out into the open. Now if they show their identity as party members, then, obviously, they have to toe their party line, they have to behave as party members. Whereas, if they remain underground, even if they were true Communist Party members, then we can disregard their status, judge them by their action, by their work, by their deeds.

And if they do anything because of their party membership, if they do anything against the wishes of the Hong Kong people, then we criticize them without paying any attention to their party membership.

Q: Would the primary loyalty of a Communist Party member be to the party or to Hong Kong?

A: Up to now, I tend to believe that there can be unity between the two, because, actually, it is the policy of the CCP to implement this “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong. And the party should not do anything that would be harmful to the Hong Kong community.

But in the future, there could be certain changes in the policy of the CCP, not that I think that there would be, but if it did come about, then perhaps it would be a very different situation.