The John Humphrys of Hong Kong has fled, complaining of intimidation. Those left behind are pushing against Beijing's block on democracyby Jonathan Fenby / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
As Hong Kong navigates the choppiest political waters it has seen since returning to Chinese sovereignty seven years ago, one familiar voice is missing.
For the past ten years, Albert Cheng King-hon has been a weathervane for the territory as host of a popular three-hour morning radio show, Teacup in a Storm. An acerbic critic of the unpopular post-handover government headed by chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, Cheng is a strong supporter of democratisation, and opposed recent moves by Beijing to slow down the process of giving the people of Hong Kong a greater say in their own affairs.
He also ruffled some other feathers along the way – six years ago, he was attacked by men wielding machetes outside the Commercial Radio studio, and was seriously injured in the shoulder and arm; he was thought to have offended one of the triad gangs who operate in the territory.
But now, as Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces celebrate a highly successful demonstration on 1st July – the anniversary of the 1997 handover – Cheng is on the other side of the world. In British or American terms it is as if John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie had left the Today programme or one of the top US radio talk show hosts had quit his post in the middle of an election year.
The manner of Cheng’s going was suitably dramatic for a commentator who has always known how to arouse public interest. He left a tape to be broadcast on the show as he was flying to Europe before going on to the US.
“The increasing pressure I’ve been feeling physically and psychologically has put me on the brink of a breakdown,” Cheng said on the tape. The political climate in Hong Kong had become “suffocating.” He had received threats. The office of a trading company in which he had shares had been daubed with red paint. His family was worried. So, at the age of 58 and after much soul-searching, he had decided to accept medical advice to take a break.
Friends say that Cheng does not point a finger directly at Beijing or the post-handover administration in Hong Kong, but instead believes that “bad elements” might have tried to win brownie points with the authorities by trying to intimidate him.
Cheng says he thinks Hong Kong people are quite capable of organising their pro-democracy movement without help from his radio show. On 1st July, a crowd of anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 proved him right by taking to the streets in searing heat to press the cause. This was a huge turnout for a place that, according to Beijing, is meant to be an “economic city” that does not bother with politics.
The Beijing-approved Tung Chee-hwa, who was forced to withdraw security legislation by a similar big protest last year, said he understood the protesters’ aspirations, but that even if he had wanted to move, his hands were tied by Beijing’s resistance to the call for democracy by 2007-08.
The democrats are now looking forward to elections for the legislative council on 12th September, in which they have a chance of winning a majority despite the gerrymandering of seats. The council’s limited powers mean that such a victory would have little practical effect, but it would further weaken Tung’s position and sharpen the contrast between Beijing’s resistance to democracy and the electoral will of the people of Hong Kong.
The Commercial Radio saga did not end with Cheng’s departure, and has gone on to provide a dramatic backdrop to summer politics. Soon after Cheng left, his colleague Raymond Wong Yuk-man went too. And Cheng’s Teacup in a Storm replacement, Allen Lee Peng-fei, who as a former leader of the pro-business Liberal party and a delegate to the National People’s Congress in Beijing might have been expected to be a safe pair of hands, soon resigned too, saying he had been approached by “prominent people” to influence the programme’s political line. He was also reported to have been asked by a mainland official about his wife and family, who were in China, which he took to be a veiled threat.
The radio hosts have not been the only people under pressure this summer. Pro-democracy politicians have reported receiving threats: one found a large bag filled with excrement outside his office. The political atmosphere is tense and it is likely to stay that way. Looking at the spread of democracy in southeast Asia, many of Hong Kong’s 7m people wonder why the pace of reform is so slow. It is hard not to contrast Beijing’s refusal to allow them democracy with this summer’s presidential voting in Indonesia or this year’s electoral cycle in Taiwan.
The reason for this is simple, and stems from the arrangements worked out by the Chinese and British in the long negotiations leading up to 1st July 1997. To sweeten the pill of handing the colony to the last major state on earth ruled by a Communist party, British officials made much of the way in which Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy” while “Hong Kong people would run Hong Kong.”
But it is Beijing – not the people of Hong Kong – that in fact pulls the strings. Tung may be a Hong Kong person (even if he was born in Shanghai), but he shows little desire to exercise autonomy from the men in the north who picked him for the job.
If he flies home and takes to the air again in 2005, Albert Cheng will have plenty to talk about.