How exactly has Hong Kong managed to contain the CCP virus to relatively few cases?
How is the Chinese leadership’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s rule of law and freedoms a reflection of its global ambitions?
And what can we expect if the regime has its way?
In this episode, we sit down with Alan Leong, a longtime proponent of Hong Kong democracy and rule of law. The former head of the Hong Kong Bar Association, he also served on the Hong Kong Legislative Council for 12 years. In 2014, he helped lead the Umbrella Movement and currently serves as Chairman of the pro-democracy Civic Party.
Jan Jekielek: Alan Leong, so great to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Alan Leong: My pleasure.
Mr. Jekielek: Alan, we spoke last December when I was in Hong Kong. You were arguing that the reality that Hong Kong faces with the Chinese Communist Party, is actually something the world needs to look at because they’re going to face that same reality. If they’re not facing it now, they’re going to face it sometime. And that really stuck with me. I want to dig into that because there’s been some examples of how the CCP is using the world’s focus on coronavirus to further encroach on Hong Kong freedoms and basic law. Before we jump into that, what’s the reality on the ground right now in Hong Kong?
Mr. Leong: Well, when we talked in December, I actually used the figurative speech that today’s Hong Kong would be liberal democracies tomorrow, and therefore, if you are thinking that you are just helping Hong Kong, that is not quite accurate because you are at the same time helping yourselves. I think this coronavirus saga is bringing that message home, cut and dried, to liberal democracies and their peoples. In the past, liberal democracies focused on the dollar sign by doing business in China, exploiting the huge market in China, but now they know that by such business dealings, they can easily be sacrificing lives. And of course, you know why because there had been this concealment of very relevant information by the CCP as to when this coronavirus first came into being and how it had spread, etc. So, I think this virus is in a way awakening a lot of people in liberal democracies who had not done so before.
Coming back to your question as to what is on the ground in Hong Kong, in so far as this CCP virus is concerned, I think we are doing reasonably well, given the fact that our Chief Executive Carrie Lam had been very slow in closing the border between Hong Kong and the mainland. And there has consistently been an influx of mainlanders into Hong Kong. And of course, we were very anxious about this. So anxious that many of our doctors and nurses went on strike for five days, and what they demanded was for Carrie Lam to close the border between Hong Kong and the mainland so that the Hong Kong public health system would not collapse as a result of this huge influx of people who would be prone to carrying this virus with them. The strike of the medical personnel actually resulted in a partial closure of the border in the form of restrictions imposed on those coming into Hong Kong from the mainland, requiring them to undergo a period of quarantine, etc.
So, if you ask me why Hong Kong is doing okay, given all the influx of mainlanders, I think I would give credit to the anti-extradition movement. I would also give credit to what happened in 2014 in the Umbrella Movement and the 79 days of occupation. Because from these huge people’s movements, and the response that we had gotten from the CCP and from the local administration, we learned this lesson, albeit a very hard way, that we can’t trust the CCP, we can’t trust the Hong Kong government, and we have to really do what we can as a matter of self-help. And therefore, we tried our very best to get supply of surgical masks. You may remember that there were about three weeks in Hong Kong, beginning about mid-January to early February, that you found long queues of Hong Kong people. Whenever they heard that a particular shop got some supplies of this surgical mask, they would queue up the night before. And so, we also try to make those alcohol wash ourselves because they were short in supply in the markets in Hong Kong, in January—hand rub, etc. And also, we did not follow the suggestion from Carrie Lam for us not to wear masks. We just listen to our experts—pandemic experts, doctors, etc. So, I think … the present situation that we are in is not as bad as it could have been, we owe it to these huge people’s movements and the lesson that we learned from them.
Mr. Jekielek: Taiwan is also doing model work around trying to deal with the pandemic. … They were in an unusual situation in that they didn’t even have access to the WHO information, which by all accounts, was basically fed directly from the CCP. Taiwan didn’t trust what the CCP was saying either. So, any country that did trust the CCP seems to have fared very, very poorly.
Mr. Leong: I think when you likened Hong Kong to Taiwan in how we are faring in this war against the CCP virus, you are making a very apt analogy. Taiwan is not a member of WHO and that is of course a blessing as it turns out, because Taiwan will not have to listen to Dr. Tedros. Dr. Tedros was saying and telling the world—I think America actually suffered as a result of trusting Dr. Tedros at the WHO—that it believed that this CCP virus was actually controllable and it would not spread like wildfire as it is now spreading. So, I think what is common between Hong Kong and Taiwan is that we did not trust the WHO, we did not trust the CCP for the information that they provided. Of course Hong Kong also experienced, about 20 years ago, the SARS epidemic. So, we are quite tuned to wearing surgical masks to protect ourselves and protect others; protect our neighbors. I think it is this mentality, and not trusting CCP, or the WHO, that put us in our present situation.
Mr. Jekielek: Recently, Dr. Tedros, the head of the World Health Organization, accused Taiwan of being racist towards his person. Actually, this idea of racism has been used by Chinese officials and spokespeople as well when American officials were saying that the virus originated in China. I’m wondering if you could speak to this.
Mr. Leong: Well, the talk about racism in the context of the coronavirus, to me, is really a red herring. It has directed attention in a wrong direction, and if we follow that direction, we are going off on a tangent. The CCP has a history of playing up nationalism whenever they are in deep trouble and this is a tactic that the CCP is used to deploying. And talking about Dr. Tedros, firstly, it has been found out that all the attacks on him which apparently originated from Taiwan, had been created by mainland netizens. And secondly, I think Dr. Tedros missed the point. The world has been complaining that the WHO has become the China Health Organization by concealing very material and relevant information which, if the world had known in a timely manner, could have prevented over 90% of the spread of the virus. Now, this is really the point that Dr. Tedros ought to be addressing. But I know why he was playing up this racism card—because he doesn’t have an answer to what should always have been the question.
Mr. Jekielek: A RTHK reporter did the interview with WHO official which went viral subsequently because the official wasn’t going to speak about Taiwan. But the [Hong Kong] administration is coming down on RTHK right now with respect to this. Can you speak to that?
Mr. Leong: Yes. In fact, I can generally describe the Hong Kong situation as follows: I think the CCP and its agent, namely Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Hong Kong, are exploiting the public health situation to do some very bad things. And there are a few of these bad things. For example, there are talks about making national security laws as soon as possible. You remember that they failed to do so in the year 2003. But now people are jumping at it and suggest that this may be time to do it.
Another thing is that they started arresting people for sedition, which is something that we lawyers see to be a crime that aims at silencing dissidents and the dissent. Also, there are talks about canceling, or at least postponing, the September legislative council elections, which of course is a very great matter because you’re taking away Hong Kongers’ right to vote, which is protected by the International Covenant—human rights and political rights. And also without this right to vote, you’re actually forcing people to use force or violence because this is the most civilized and rational way to manifest your political positions.
And the fourth matter on my list is of course the thing that you just mentioned. Radio Television Hong Kong, generally known as RTHK, is of course a public broadcaster in Hong Kong. It is a government department under the control of the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development. And we Hong Kong people have been watching RTHK for at least three to four decades, and we like in particular the way that the RTHK has put together programs that are satirical of the administration. We like the political satires that this public broadcaster has been producing. And there was this recent incident that a reporter of RTHK got herself this opportunity to interview online the Deputy Secretary-General of WHO. And the question asked by this female reporter to the Deputy Secretary-General was just, “Sir, would you consider Taiwan for membership of WHO,” and the Deputy Secretary-General suddenly cut the line as if there was a signal failure. And when he came back on, the reporter asked the question again, and he simply refused to meet it head on. So, that was the background.
And the policy secretary, Edward Yau, in charge of RTHK—that is, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, this reporter’s boss, so to speak—suddenly came out in a high profile to allege that this reporter, by asking that question about Taiwan membership to be considered by WHO, is in fact going against and breaching the One China principle. Now, this, to me, is quite ridiculous. And there have been talks about the government coming down on this public broadcaster like tons of bricks, and obviously they do not like the way that RTHK has been putting together all these programs which were so popular that make the administration and the CCP most embarrassed. So, they are these few matters, it seems, the CCP and the Hong Kong administration are exploiting the public health issue in the form of the CCP virus attacking Hong Kong to do very bad things.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re basically saying, they’re not just attacking RTHK for the reporter’s suggestion that Taiwan might be independent, but they’re actually using this whole scenario as a hook to encroach on RTHK’s independence altogether. Am I reading that right?
Mr. Leong: Well, this reporter’s incident is not just a singular incident that suggests the administration is coming down on this public broadcaster. There are other things happening at the same time. For example, the administration was alleging that the RTHK in a political satire was ridiculing the police to such an extent that they misled the public into believing that the police was not doing their job properly. And by making this accusation, the administration actually asked the RTHK director to submit a report on the incident and kicked up a big fuss about it. And pro-Beijing and pro-government legislators in the Legislative Council were actually suggesting that perhaps they would cut the budget for RTHK in the coming financial year just to teach them a lesson. Now, all these things are happening at the same time, and this reporter who asked the question to the Deputy Secretary-General of WHO is only one of the few instances that we feel are instances that could bear witness to the administration going after RTHK.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating, and frankly, very disturbing. The other thing you mentioned was this example of using the accusation of “sedition.” I’m wondering if you could explain that a little bit.
Mr. Leong: During the anti-extradition law saga, there was a reporter from Indonesia reporting the movement in Hong Kong. And on one occasion, there was an encounter between this reporter from Indonesia and the riot police, and one of her eyes was actually blinded as a result of the police firing at her. And there was a democrat who was the chairman of one of the district councils in Hong Kong, who posted on her Facebook the picture of this police officer praised by people on the internet to be the culprit who actually had fired on the Indonesian journalist, causing one of her eyes to be blinded. And the police arrested her, arrested this democrat District Council chairman and investigated her for a possible offense of sedition.
Now, to all lawyers trained in the common law, we know that sedition is a political offense that first came into being, I think, in the 17th century when the British monarch was using this to silence the dissidents and any dissenting voices. So, it is an archaic offense, common law offense, that ought to have no place in modern-day Hong Kong when we are protected by the two International Covenants on Human Rights and also our own human rights ordinance. So, this proposed invocation of this archaic offense of sedition, again, is a move in the wrong direction. To us, it seems that the CCP and the Hong Kong administration are trying to really silence any dissenting voice. That eats into freedom of expression and freedom of speech. That is a great matter.
Mr. Jekielek: You actually mentioned that people are talking about reintroducing the National Security Law—it was Article 23 back in the day. This was what created the original mass protests in the first place because it would … remove the separation of the Hong Kong legal system from the mainland. Right now, there are people saying that should come back?
Mr. Leong: Yes. In fact, July 1, 2003 saw the first 500,000 people march on Hong Kong Island streets. … It started, what I would describe as, a social awakening of Hong Kong civil society. At that time, Hong Kong was under Tung Chee-hwa, our first chief executive, and the Secretary for Security was then Regina Ip, who of course is now a legislator and chairlady of the New People’s Party. And Article 23 of the Basic Law actually obliges Hong Kong to make national security laws to deal with grave offenses like treason, breach of state secret, sedition, etc. And of course, you know that if we are into the realm of national security laws, there are bound to be some sacrifices on human rights and freedoms.
At that time, I was Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, and we put out a very strong position paper to argue that if Hong Kong made the national security laws in the way that the chief executive was then proposing, then Hong Kong’s rule of law as an institution would be very much harmed and damaged. And quite obviously, we persuaded quite a few Hong Kong people … and there was this huge march on July 1, 2003, which resulted in the national security bill having been shelved by the chief executive, and it has never come back since. And just about, I think, a fortnight ago, there were more than one voice in Hong Kong from both the Legislative Council circle and Beijing camp arguing that, “Well, it is high time that we made laws to deal with treason,… etc., because that had been all that was causing the troubles in Hong Kong.” So, that is also a very dangerous sign. We may be seeing a further deterioration of the Hong Kong rule of law, and respect for freedoms and human rights.
While on that, perhaps you can allow me to also mention that the statements made by quite a few pro-Beijing figures on an occasion that marked the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of the Basic Law actually made me very anxious. The Basic Law was promulgated on April 4th, 1990. So, came April 4th, 2020, we are looking at the 30th anniversary. These pro-Beijing figures were telling Hong Kong that, “Oh, you had been mistaken about your interpretation of the Basic Law. When you said, ‘Oh, you have been promised a high degree of autonomy, your freedoms and your human rights would remain intact, your legal system and the rule of law as an institution would be preserved until at least 2047’—that was a mistake! In fact, I can tell you now that the CCP has all along retained absolute power over Hong Kong and you must read the Basic Law in a correct way.”
Now, this is really something that I can’t swallow. Given these very clear statements, I think it is fair for me to conclude that on this 30th anniversary, I can say that the past 30 years actually tell a tale of treachery and deceit. So, they are actually saying, “Well, look here, chaps. You thought that you had been promised a universal suffrage. You thought that you had been promised preservation of freedoms, human rights and the rule of law as an institution. You are mistaken.” Now, how can anybody who is responsible say something like that? It is just like you have deceived Hong Kong people, and now turning around to accuse us of being so foolish as to have been deceived by you. This is really something, but it seems that this is the CCP that we are facing today.
And coming back to where you began, Jan, I said today’s Hong Kong can easily be the world’s tomorrow. Now, if the CCP is giving us this story of treachery and deceit, in not respecting the Basic Law and all the promises enshrined in it, then the CCP in its true colors is actually revealed to the world very clearly. And so, when I told your audience back in December that you, meaning the liberal democracies of the world, are standing with Hong Kong to fight for our freedom, that is not only you helping us to fight our war, our battle, against encroachment of freedoms, and human rights, and rule of law. You’re also defending yourselves because we are both sharing the same core values, ideologies and institutions of liberal democracies of the world, and we are facing the same threat—the CCP threat. And what happens on the ground in Hong Kong should bring home to you loudly and clearly what you might be facing in time to come.
Mr. Jekielek: How much of an increased threat do you see amidst coronavirus from the CCP to encroach further on the freedoms of Hong Kong?
Mr. Leong: What I see happening on the ground in Hong Kong while we are defending ourselves against this virus is that CCP is exploiting the situation to do bad things on Hong Kong people, thinking probably that the world would be too busy and otherwise engaged with fighting the coronavirus; that they could not spare the attention to keep an eye on Hong Kong. And that is exactly why I’m telling the world that perhaps you should not do that. Of course, you fight the coronavirus, but at the same time—I think people are already doing this. They are trying to figure out what has brought about the chaos and the catastrophic effect on the world economy. An accusing finger, of course, is being pointed at the CCP, particularly in the form that it had chosen to conceal the coronavirus when it was first reported in Wuhan. And also, it had produced figures that were not trustworthy, so that the world did not have an accurate assessment as to what possible impact this coronavirus could have, and the catastrophic results that it could produce.
So, this in a way, is bringing home to the world, how CCP threat can manifest itself in a way that is actually lethal to peoples of the liberal democratic world. It is in this way that I think this CCP virus is highly relevant to the world’s awakening to the CCP threat. It is just like an alarm clock that wakes you up, and this CCP virus is really so persuasive that you can’t continue to sleep on it. You are now awakened and you have to find a way to deal with the CCP in the aftermath of the CCP virus.
I think I can see evidence of the world—politicians, governments, peoples in liberal democracies—starting to put on their thinking caps and trying to do something along this line. For example, I have seen some empirical huge data analysis done in 19 countries, I think, tracing back to patient zero of the virus outbreak in individual countries, and they trace it back to a person from Wuhan. And also, I think some Indian jurists are already asking the United Nations to make China, or in other words, the CCP, pay for the huge loss and damage suffered. And the Henry Jackson Society, a very reputable think tank in London, published a report that goes to about 50-60 pages to suggest that there are causes of action open to victims of the CCP virus so that they can pursue China for compensation. And lastly, only last week I saw a piece of news to say that the International Criminal Court already received an application for bringing China to justice in that court, something that can be likened to war crime.
So, it seems that the CCP and President Xi Jinping are finding themselves in a very dire situation, that it seems that the whole world is coming down on them. But what bewilders me is that it seems the CCP and President Xi Jinping are not responding or reacting in a way that a rational being would expect them to. Instead of apologizing to the world for having done wrong, they are now putting out different allegations and accusations to say, firstly, that it was American soldiers bringing the virus to Wuhan. Then they actually suggested that it could be Italy that first spread the virus, through Chinese personnel, to China. Now, all these, I don’t think will help them in regaining the trust of the world, and if such trust cannot be earned once again, then not only the CCP will face very dire consequences, Hong Kong will also go down with it.
You might be aware that there was this news about—is it Google—laying a cable which originally was planned to go via Taiwan to Hong Kong. But now, I think they would stop at Taiwan, and the reason for that is that Hong Kong is no longer trusted as a member of the free world. If the cable goes to Hong Kong, it could actually jeopardize all the data and information conveyed in that seabed cable. And that is a very sad thing for Hong Kongers to note because we have been promised independent customs territory status since 1992 by the Hong Kong Policy Act, passed by the American Congress. But now, it seems that we are brought down by the CCP when the world has awakened to the CCP threat, and Hong Kong is no longer trusted as an autonomous region that can manage our own business, and honor our treaty and contract obligations with the rest of the world. That is a sad thing.
Mr. Jekielek: It brings two questions to my mind. First of all, are you worried … of the awareness of the way that CCP is acting around the world, around global governments, and especially in the U.S., will result in the special status of Hong Kong being revoked, which of course would be a very difficult situation? And two, … the types of court cases that you were talking about earlier, holding the CCP accountable, there’s actually legislation being introduced in the U.S. right now to this effect. There’s a number of lawsuits that we’ve been covering that also seek damages around this. The criticism of this legislation and these losses is simply: it’s too early to try to deal with this; let’s deal with the problem first; lay blame later. What would you say to people that have that criticism?
Mr. Leong: There’s a saying in Hong Kong that “if we burn, the CCP burns with us.” Well, it seems that unfortunately, we may be heading that way. If Hong Kong is no longer trusted as an autonomous Special Administrative Region that is given a free hand to manage our own business, then Hong Kong will be treated by the rest of the world as no different from Shanghai or Guangzhou. Now, so if that is the case, that … is very, very difficult for Hong Kong to maintain our status as an international financial center. And of course, with such a status of an international financial center gone, then I really question how the CCP could recruit or to attract foreign investments directly into China, and also how it could exchange RMB into internationally traded foreign currencies. So, it is really difficult to answer why the CCP and President Xi are behaving in a way that is beyond logical comprehension, unless they actually want to burn Hong Kong, and then they burn with us. But that doesn’t make sense. And the only way that I can explain it is that they, out of power, conceitedness, they just can’t help themselves into behaving in this way, which is totally irrational, if you ask me. And I think peoples of the world should see in the example of Hong Kong people over the past decade or so, that when you think that there is really no hope at all by standing up to the CCP, sometimes by insisting on what you believe to be the right thing to do, somehow things might work out.
Now, of course, I’m not saying that things are working out at the moment, but at least 20 years ago when we were faced with the Article 23 saga, people already said, as a matter of undeniable fact, that Hong Kong was no match for the CCP; it’s no good for the people of Hong Kong to stand up against the making of the national security laws. But of course, as history has it, we have defended ourselves against that law, that draconian law, which originally was meant to take away our freedoms, our human rights, and rule of law. We have at least postponed that evil day for 18 years now, right? And we also did very well, in November, in the district council elections. Everybody thought that probably the CCP and the Hong Kong administration would cancel that election, the district council elections. But it turned out that the Democrats won a landslide victory. We won 388 seats out of a total of 420, and we are now controlling 17 out of 18 district councils. So, there is a silver lining behind these dark clouds looming over Hong Kong, and for that purpose, looming over the world. But if we insist on living in truth, and we practice good comradeship, and we practice what we believe to be human values, I think there’s no need to feel and act desperate. Yeah, just keep it up, and hang in there, and do our best.
Mr. Jekielek: Based on what you’ve just said, I’m guessing I know the answer to the other question, which is whether it’s appropriate to seek restitution and damages, and this legislation to hold the CCP accountable at this time.
Mr. Leong: Given previous examples of the CCP having been taken to international arena, they invariably would say, even [if] they lost these legal battles, they would say, “Oh, this is a question of our own sovereignty, we are not going to yield to International Court’s ruling, etc.” So, I think these moves are totally understandable, but I don’t think it will produce the results that the pursuers intend. But that is not really telling them not to continue to pursue them. I think it is important for us who believe in a rules-based game, all the things, to do what we think ought to be done. But I’m not optimistic at all that you would be able to get the redress and remedy, or compensation, from the CCP by pursuing such forces.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re a very keen legal mind. I’ll just mention, one of the lawyers that’s on one of these cases, he has actually successfully extracted multiple millions from a nationalized CCP-governed company. I believe the judge in the case basically threatened to stop port calls for Chinese ships unless they paid up ultimately. So, it seems like there are methods other than saying, “Give me the money,” and the CCP saying, “No, thanks. We’re sovereign.”
Mr. Leong: You’re right if there are assets of CCP within your jurisdiction, then that is of course a different question. But you can only have your remedy as much as you have CCP’s assets within your jurisdiction. So, do what you think is right. Don’t despair and give up too soon.
Mr. Jekielek: Oh, those are wonderful words to hear, in general, for these very, very difficult times. Our hearts here go out to the Hong Kong people setting a great example for the rest of the world, holding tight in the face of a lot of adversity and not just coronavirus. Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Mr. Leong: Well, I really hope that the world will spare us some attention during these difficult times when you are fighting against the coronavirus. Hong Kong is really on the front line of this battle between the China model and the liberal democratic model. If Hong Kong falls as a result of the world no longer paying enough attention to us during this time of the viral attack, then if Hong Kong falls, it may produce similar results in other countries who have been dealing with the CCP. So, it may be high time that we all sit back and think about how we would deal with the CCP after the virus has somehow been controlled. And I can say with some certainty that there would be a new order of things. Life will not go back to the time before the coronavirus. It is not possible, and it is something that God forbids.
Mr. Jekielek: Alan Leong, such a pleasure to speak with you today.
Mr. Leong: Pleasure’s all mine.