SCMP Saturday, July 7, 2001
Restore honour from disgrace
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has created a major public-relations crisis for himself by conferring the Grand Bauhinia Medal on a 75-year-old controversial figure, and does not quite know how to deal with it.
Despite mounting criticisms, Mr Tung has yet to publicly justify his choice of Yeung Kwong, who played a leading role in the 1967 riots, for the SAR's highest honour. Nor has the Government's information-services machine been much help in defending the decision.
The pro-Beijing unionists and the "patriotic" press, on the other hand, have been eager to defend Mr Tung and Mr Yeung. They insist the Anti-British Struggle Committee, of which Mr Yeung was the director, did not orchestrate any of the violence. And they dismiss the indiscriminate use of explosives during the 1967 riots as just the spontaneous reaction of a small number of ardent patriots.
Wen Wei Po, for example, has been incessantly repeating this position ever since the latest list of award recipients was unveiled last Saturday. Among the others to have defended the award are such prominent legislators from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong as chairman Tsang Yok-sing and vice-chairman Ip Kwok-him.
Leftist figures like them may consider this a long overdue opportunity to rewrite the history of the bloody confrontations. But their defence of these events has offended many who lived through the disturbances and suffered as a result. Many callers to radio programmes have given first-hand accounts of the events of 1967 that are quite different from the way in which the pro-Beijing circle have portrayed Mr Yeung and his Anti-British Struggle Committee as not being involved in orchestrating any of the violence.
It is worth drawing an analogy with the local protests in 1989 against the military suppression of the student protest in Tiananmen Square. Over a million citizens took part in these marches and demonstrations, which remained entirely peaceful. Even if a handful of fanatics resorted to violence in 1989, there is no doubt that organisers like Szeto Wah and Martin Lee Chu-ming - at that stage senior figures in the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China - would have been held responsible for any such disturbances.
Leaders of a mass movement are there to lead. That means they should not just be accountable for the strategy and course of action they chart, but also for ensuring that a peaceful campaign is not hijacked by violent extremists.
The best way out is for Mr Yeung to muster his political courage and step forward to take responsibility for the 1967 events. Even if he did not orchestrate any of the brutal attacks that took place that year, Mr Yeung should admit he has to be held accountable for having incited a campaign that went out of control. In 1967, he was brave enough to challenge the colonialist rulers. He should now have the guts to offer a public apology to the innocent victims of the confrontations.
This is the one and only way for him to salvage any residual public respect. It is also the only honourable way to reciprocate Mr Tung's favour.
Mr Tung's surprising move has given rise to a few conspiracy theories. The most convincing is that he picked Mr Yeung for the award in order to consolidate the support of the old pro-Beijing forces for his re-election for another term as Chief Executive next March. Indeed, three others with similar backgrounds have already been honoured over the past three years.
Although Mr Tung has, in effect, vindicated the role of this handful of protest leaders in the unrest, he has inadvertently alienated thousands of others who took part in the street protests and were subsequently victimised for their role in the riots.
About 2,000 of these demonstrators were arrested during the 1967 unrest. Many of them, mostly working-class people, were convicted and burdened with a criminal record. As a result, some have been denied the chance to take on even manual jobs in the civil service and major private establishments. They have also been unable to obtain the certificate of no criminal conviction necessary for emigration.
If Mr Tung really wants to treat the riots as a noble campaign of the oppressed against the oppressors, he should have the decency to clear the reputations of these nameless people's heroes.
While Mr Yeung had his moment of fame during the heights of action, these loyal followers have remained anonymous and stigmatised. Their pain was physical and psychological. Some disappeared into obscurity, while others died in disgrace - frustrated and unrecognised. To be consistent, the Tung administration is morally obliged to revert the court verdicts on them.
The committee, tasked with nominating recipients for the various awards, also owes the public an explanation. The group, headed by Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, comprises Executive Councillors Leung Chun-ying and Yang Ti Liang.
Some reckon Mr Tsang's predecessor, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, would have objected to decorating Mr Yeung if she had still been in office. This is obviously wishful thinking, as others deeply involved with the riots pocketed their medals while she was still chief secretary.
It has been a subject of intense speculation as to who actually put Mr Yeung's name forward, although the final shortlist is said to have Mr Tung's fingerprints all over it. The nomination committee operates secretly and the public is not even aware whether there is a set of objective criteria for the nomination process. Silence on the part of officials only helps to fuel wilder speculation.
To admit one's mistakes is an act of integrity. Most officials, including Mr Tung, have yet to appreciate it. Either Mr Tung or Mr Yeung will have to do something drastic to prevent the value of the Grand Bauhinia Medal depreciating further. Otherwise, it will be grossly unfair on any future recipients of the honour.
Albert Cheng King-hon (
) is a broadcaster and publisher.