HONG KONG - Just as this city's critics are writing it off as a fawning servant
to its political masters in Beijing, Hong Kong politicians of all stripes have
defied their superiors on the mainland in an unprecedented show of
And it is not just the usual pro-democracy suspects who are leading the charge;
pro-Beijing political leaders are also jumping on the bandwagon. Despite many
reports of its demise, it seems the "one country, two systems" formula,
hammered out before the handover from British to Chinese rule 13 years ago, is
still alive and kicking in Hong Kong.
What has brought these two previously hostile Hong Kong political camps
together is the case of Zhao Lianhai, yet another
Chinese activist who, through his admirable attempts to reform his country, has
been rewarded with a jail term.
Zhao's case is particularly poignant because it involves infants - more than
300,000 of them - who were poisoned in 2008 by baby formula laced with the
industrial chemical melamine; six of those children died of renal failure, and
50,000 were hospitalized with kidney ailments. The high nitrogen content in
melamine, used in making plastics and fertilizer, falsely raises protein
readings when added to food and dairy products. In China, it was - and, by some
accounts, still is - used by dairy farmers to make potentially lethal milk
appear more nutritious during testing, and thus fetch a higher price.
Zhao, 38, whose son developed kidney stones after drinking tainted formula, has
championed the cause of victims of the scandal and their families, many of whom
complain they have been ignored by a government that promised them both
compassion and compensation. While Zhao's supporters on the mainland are being
silenced, in Hong Kong - where freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Basic
Law, the mini-constitution that is the legal bedrock of the "one country, two
systems" dictum - his case has found traction on all sides of the political
Predictably, the pro-democracy camp jumped to his cause. Remarkably, however,
local politicians generally regarded as Beijing puppets have also embraced
Zhao; even 28 Hong Kong deputies to the National People's Congress (NPC), have
backed the jailed activist, last week submitting a petition calling for
leniency in his case to China's Supreme People's Court. In the city's
Legislative Council (Legco), 25 of 60 members also co-submitted a letter to the
court in support of Zhao. While most pro-Beijing lawmakers chose not to sign
the letter, they nevertheless commended Zhao and his cause.
Although he was not a signatory, for example, Wong Kwok-kin, a legislator
representing the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, said: "We hope Mr Zhao
Lianhai will be released as soon as possible."
Hong Kong's biggest political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment
and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which generally takes its cues from across the
border, added its support for Zhao but said it would communicate its concerns
about his case to the central government through other means.
Lawmaker Frederick Fung Kin-kee summed up the view of pan-democrats when he
said: "In a civilized era, we cannot tolerate the fact that a plaintiff is made
a defendant and then a prisoner."
Hong Kong democrats were quick to liken Zhao's case to that of Liu Xiaobo, the
human-rights and democracy advocate who won this year's Nobel Peace Prize but
will be unable to receive it in Oslo next month because he is serving an
11-year prison sentence for "inciting subversion of state power".
They also invoked the name of Tan Zuoren, jailed for five years in February,
2009 for his efforts to set up a database for families who lost their children
in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake when their shoddily built "tofu" schools
collapsed on them. The Legco comparisons stopped there, but lawmakers could
have gone on to include Tian Xi, a 23-year-old who contracted HIV and hepatitis
B and C at the age of nine through a blood transfusion and has since become a
tireless advocate for himself and others stricken with HIV/AIDS in China. He,
too, like countless others who push too hard against China's authoritarian
rule, is behind bars.
The Chinese leadership continues to stress social harmony and stability and is
quick to snuff out any spark that could ignite unrest. Unfortunately, nothing
Hong Kong NPC deputies or legislative councilors say is going to change that.
Indeed, their open support of Zhao will probably only harden attitudes in
Beijing and make it less likely that his case will be re-examined and his
No doubt concerned with growing support for Zhao in Hong Kong, the state-run
Xinhua News Agency dispatch a lengthy statement on Sunday acknowledging that
Zhao's verdict has "caused concerns" in Hong Kong. However, Xinhua defended the
court ruling against him and attacked Zhao for continuing his activism after
his son had received free hospital treatment and recovered in 2008. The
statement also criticized Zhao for "another incident" of public disorder - an
apparent reference to the vociferous support he offered a rape victim last year
at a Beijing police station
Once the editor of a publication devoted to food and product safety, Zhao has
led a series of protests in support of families of stricken children in the
melamine scandal. Moreover, from his home in Daxing, a Beijing suburb, he
established a website called Kidney Stone Babies, where those families could
tell their stories and coordinate plans to file lawsuits against the 22 dairy
companies found responsible for the tragedy. Many families, including Zhao's,
say they have been excluded from the compensation fund that the government
forced those companies to set up and express fear for the long-term health of
their sick children.
Zhao also used the website to publish documents leaked by a source in Henan
province's Department of Health appearing to show that employees there had been
ordered to underreport the number of melamine cases and to suppress claims that
autopsies had been denied to children who died after drinking tainted formula.
He went on to organize a dinner in September 2009 to mark the first anniversary
of the scandal and then committed the cardinal sin of speaking with foreign
media about the injustices suffered by families of the victims.
In some countries, Zhao would be honored as a hero and have medals hanging
around his neck and plaques of praise on the walls of his home. For his work in
China, however, the activist, who has already been in detention for a year, was
sentenced to two and half years in jail earlier this month by the Daxing
District People's Court. His crime: "provoking quarrels and making trouble".
The usual sentence for this peculiarly Chinese offense is six to eight months,
so clearly the court wanted to hold Zhao up as an especially irksome example of
a trouble-making crusader.
On hearing the sentence, Zhao reportedly tore off his prisoner's uniform and
threw it on the judge's desk, shouting: "I am innocent! I have done no wrong."
Once back in his cell, he started a hunger strike.
Zhao's lawyers, who have vowed to appeal his harsh sentence, are being denied
access to their client by authorities in Daxing. His family is being harassed,
and his wife, Li Xuemei, has stopped responding to phone calls and text
messages from lawyers and reporters. Authorities have also done their best to
block Internet chatter about Zhao.
We have all seen this movie before. Every time the world watches, the script
gets panned and the directors and producers roundly booed. Still, somehow,
Beijing refuses to change the plot.
When the Norwegian Nobel Committee holds its award ceremony for the peace prize
on December 10 in Oslo, a group of Hong Kong legislators, led by Democratic
Party Chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan, will be in attendance. But no member of the
recipient's family, reportedly under lockdown in China, is likely to be there.
Thus, for the first time since 1936, when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler kept
that year's winner, pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, locked up in Germany, the
prize will not be handed out at the ceremony.
Even during the darks days of the Cold War in the Soviet Union, the wife of
nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov was allowed to receive the prize for him in
1975. In 1983, the prize went to Lech Walesa - an electrician and trade-union
organizer in the then Soviet satellite state of Poland - but Walesa was afraid
to leave his country lest he not be readmitted. His, spouse, too, traveled to
Oslo to accept the prize; seven years later, Walesa was elected president of
Poland. When Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize in 1991
while under house arrest, her 18-year-old son accepted the award in her stead.
This year's ceremony will feature a performance by a children's choir that was
requested by Liu, and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann will read a speech written
by him. But the conspicuous absence of the recipient or any member of his
family will be the far bigger story because it puts China in some very select
and unsavory company. The bad taste left by his non-attendance should linger
for a long time to come, no matter how fast the Chinese economy continues to
grow or how many international marquee events, such as the Summer Olympic Games
and the World Expo, the country manages to host.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at