I had no intention of working in Hong Kong. But I was urged by family, friends and diplomats to leave Sri Lanka after the JVP then under the name of DJV or something, announced they had killed me before they finished the job. The Joint Operations Command(JOC) located at Flower Road close to Ladies College [...]


Last rites for a once vibrant city


I had no intention of working in Hong Kong. But I was urged by family, friends and diplomats to leave Sri Lanka after the JVP then under the name of DJV or something, announced they had killed me before they finished the job.

The Joint Operations Command(JOC) located at Flower Road close to Ladies College and that day with Brigadier Vijay Wimalaratne in charge, ( later killed along with Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa,) sent out patrols in  search of my body while my wife and relatives visited the city morgue where they were asked go to try and identify my body.

That was in August 1989 when anarchy was in the air and Colombo and suburbs had been turned into killing fields.

Anyway that’s another story to be told later and in greater detail because some of my journalist friends were earlier killed by the anarchist cadres. While the New York Times of which I was Colombo correspondent was trying to move me quickly to one of its overseas bureaus, a message came to me from Hong Kong. It was conveyed through Manik de Silva, offering me a job.  The editors of the Hong Kong Standard knew nothing of the DJV attempts to get rid of me.

To cut the story short I flew to Hong Kong after maneuvering through the bureaucratic obstacles at Lake House (thanks to Lalith Athulathmudali then minister of national security) on a two-year contract and began working at the Standard on 15 September 1989.

I landed smack in the middle of a great ferment. Three months earlier China’s Communist leadership had let loose its soldiers and tanks on protesting students and workers gathered in their thousands in Tiananmen Square.

Initially the students had been demanding an end to corruption in the upper echelons of the ruling class. But this protest gradually swelled as workers and others joined in calling for more freedom.

File pic: Hongkongers joining a protest against the new security law. AFP

How many were killed when the army retaliated against the protestors is, I suppose, an issue that will continue to be contested for many years.

What shocked Beijing and probably more so Hong Kong’s colonial administration  was the reaction of the people of people shocked at the horrendous killing and abuse of the Chinese citizenry by Beijing’s leaders.

In fact it shook the colonial administration now in retreat to propose a Bill of Rights for Hong Kong that would never have been born had the fears of the Hongkongers of the future never been expressed in such definitive fashion.

A million or more Hongkongers had demonstrated in various ways against the atrocities of Chinese soldiers ordered to turn their weapons on innocent protestors. The perception of most Hongkongers was clear. If the Communist leaders would turn the guns on their own people what would they not do to Hong Kong people when the territory came under Chinese sovereignty in 1997? They feared the worst.

That fear was understandable. Most of those in Hong Kong then and their ancestors were mainland Chinese, mostly from Shanghai, who had fled to these one-time fishing villages to get away from the political turmoil and revolutions at home.

But they, who expected to be only temporarily here before moving on elsewhere, turned Hong Kong into a thriving city with their entrepreneurial experience and with the administrative skills of their colonial masters.

As I tried to delve deeper into the background of the political turmoil that led to the June killings in Tiananmen and beyond the sudden and unexpected reactions of the Hongkongers that brought millions on to the streets- including those businessmen-politicians of this vibrant city who had shown pro-Beijing proclivities and earlier rejected the slightest tendency for political reform. Now there was one emotion etched in the Hong Kong psyche.

That was the burning revulsion for the Communist leadership across the border and the stench of the hypocrisy in high places. Having been virtually thrown into the deep end of Hong Kong history and politics to write editorials, be a sketch writer covering the Legislative Council and features including on international affairs I had to spend my time studying the background to Hong Kong’s colonial administration and the on-going negotiations between the UK and China and Beijing’s calculated moves to draft the Basic Law which would be Hong Kong’s mini-constitution and would give Beijing an upper hand..

The more I studied Britain’s colonial administration the more I was intrigued by the chicanery and subtle manoeuvrings of the British ‘colonial’ office in London and the civil service-run administration in Hong Kong.

The British were skillful. They let Hong Kong thrive with little interference and a generous helping hand to the burgeoning business community- local and foreign- that turned the territory into one of the great financial centres of the world.

The British allowed personal freedoms and a free press but did little to bring representative government to the territory. That was one way of keeping Hong Kong alive and kicking but on a fairly tight leash. As much as Hong Kong grew on me and I came to enjoy its dynamism and elan there was something missing. Press freedom yes but one sensed that information was subtly controlled or manoeuvred.

In early 1994 I wrote this in one of my weekly columns titled “Off My Chest”: “This government talks blithely about its commitment to press freedom. But its actions belie the honeyed words that drop from the lips of Governor (Chris) Patten and his bureaucratic brigade.”

I called for a clear and unequivocal answer. “Is it serious about open and accountable government?”

Most of my writings then did not endear me to the colonial bureaucracy. But it was still possible for journalists to say what they thought. The administration was ready to absorb a series of media body blows to keep the illusion that press freedom was thriving in Hong Kong –up to a point that is.

During the 10 years I spent in Hong Kong I could write freely without my superiors or the government hovering over me. So was it with my political commentaries for Metro Radio.

That freedom is over. Early this month, the sovereign rulers in Beijing saw to that with a national security law that reduced Hong Kong, whose freedoms and life- style China promised to preserve until 2047, to a vassal territory in the making.

Hong Kong is now suffering from rigor mortis and the effervescent city that never slept will be dead before long. Libraries are being cleared of books on history and on Hong Kong life in the years gone by. A new generation of Hongkongers will emerge without any knowledge of history and culture except that dictated by the Communist agitprop.

Winston Churchill is thought to have said that history is written by the victors. Hong Kong will have a new history when Beijing presses turn out the new version as told by Xi Jinping. All that Hong Kong read and absorbed about their ‘country’ and the emergence of Hong Kong will indeed be history.

They will end up on a modern “Index” like that published in 1559 by the Congregation of the Roman Inquisition and consigned to multiple fires.

There is one question that still puzzles me. Taiwan was considered the jewel of the Chinese crown. Deng Xiaoping’s “One country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong and the gathering of Macau to Beijing’s bosom were all intended to inveigle Taiwan to be part of the greater China.

Has Beijing’s heavy hand in flattening Hong Kong turned the Taiwan dream to dust or does it have a new super power grand plan to flatten Taiwan too?

That is not all. The strangulation of Hong Kong provides a frightening lesson for  people around the world who see their freedoms and liberties in danger from potential autocrats with authoritarian predilections who see in China a moral tutor for repressive governance.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and a Political Columnist of the Hong Kong Standard before moving to London where he worked at Gemini News Service. Later he was Deputy Chief of Mission of Sri Lanka Embassy in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London before returning to journalism)


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