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DANIEL FUNG: Hong Kong can be proud to retain its pole position as the one jurisdiction in East Asia that has the most liberal and cosmopolitan human rights protection over there.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, China’s Hong Kong. Plus the musical past of the Voice Of America.
MICHAEL BIEL: The Voice Of America is the official voice of the American government. They have the right to editorialize. They have the right to make statements which are the opinion of the US government. Now we can call that, truthfully, propaganda.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I am Kristin McHugh. Three years ago, amid tremendous pomp and circumstance, Great Britain relinquished governmental control of Hong Kong to China. But in the midst of the public fanfare many in the West privately feared for Hong Kong’s future. What has happened in the three years since China assumed control? Daniel Fung is Hong Kong’s former Solicitor General. He helped Hong Kong’s legal policy both before and after the transition to Chinese rule. Fung says despite the initial fears Hong Kong is thriving under Chinese rule.
DANIEL FUNG: The fact [that] you haven’t heard a great deal about it probably is good news. Because had it gone badly I’m sure it would have hit the headlines immediately. One of the great paradoxes of the change of sovereignty for Hong Kong is that for the first time we’ve been given a written constitution, which we never had for 156 years when we were a British colony. And that’s because Britain herself did not have a written constitution and still doesn’t, so that Britain is almost unique amongst sovereign nations in having no written constitution. Hong Kong came with that sort of heritage. But between ’82 and ’84 when Britain and China were negotiating Hong Kong’s future, both sovereign states appreciated that without the guarantees of a written constitution Hong Kong may well not survive the transition to Chinese rule. And hence between ’85 and 1990 Hong Kong drafted its own constitution, which was then enacted into a piece of Chinese national legislation, binding not just Hong Kong people, but also the government of China and the people of China.
And so this document, the basic law, operates as a constitutional instrument for Hong Kong; also as a national law of the country. And because Hong Kong managed to retain, through the efforts of Britain and China in the Joint Declaration, its common law system, which is Britain’s greatest behest to Hong Kong, that constitution, the basic law, is a piece of living law for Hong Kong which is interpreted by our courts regularly. Almost on a daily basis, so that it’s not just a piece of exhortation that you pin up on the kitchen wall, it’s living law. And this piece of living law is interpreted in the form of case law. And we’ve had case decisions coming thick and fast, almost on the first month of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty. That is in July of 1997, when our courts, our Court of Appeal, announced authoritatively that the basic law is the benchmark upon which to measure legality and with which to measure the constitutionality of executive acts of government, as well as legislative acts of our legislature. So you could say that we underwent our Marbury vs. Madison epiphany in Hong Kong within the very first month of our reversion to Chinese sovereignty. And that’s an extraordinary paradox. And that’s something not widely appreciated worldwide.
MCHUGH: Was there a difficult part of the transition? What was the most difficult part?
FUNG: I think the most difficult part was to make the preexisting system work in the future. That is to say, how to preserve all the bits and pieces of the wonderfully complex machinery that makes for Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, and makes Hong Kong tick, in other words. How to preserve that piece of machinery way into the future after reversion to Chinese sovereignty. And how you make this extraordinarily complex capitalist society, which is an open society, which is the communication center of Asia, and the financial [center] of Asia, work within the larger confines of a sovereign state which many would say is not open, or not yet open, and which sovereign state subscribes to a wholly different political philosophy, that of socialism as opposed to Hong Kong’s almost freewheeling type of capitalism.
MCHUGH: Did the transition affect the economic status of Hong Kong.
FUNG: It did not. Because Hong Kong remains, it’s a founding member, for example, of the WTO. Hong Kong remains its own, retains it own separate international status as an international customs territory, as members of various different international organizations including also APEC, in which it’s a founding member, sitting alongside China in APEC. And on the WTO of course, Hong Kong is a member of the club from which China currently is still excluded, although China is knocking on the door very hard trying to get in.
MCHUGH: For a citizen of China, is human rights different in Hong Kong than it is in Beijing or other places in China.
FUNG: I think it is in this sense, that in Hong Kong, as I mentioned, we have a written constitution. And in that written constitution, in Chapter III, we have nineteen articles which protect individual forms of human rights and civil liberties, including free expression, freedom of movement, and so on and so forth. But one of those nineteen articles is a spectacularly effective one, because that article, article thirty-nine of our basic law, incorporates the provisions of the two most successful international covenants on civil and political rights, and also economic and social rights, as part of our domestic guarantees. And the, those two covenants are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. And these two multilateral treaties were hammered out in the United Nations in 1966 after some eighteen years of drafting and negotiation amongst sixty-odd different sovereign states. And today each of these multilateral treaties are subscribed to by roughly 140 states parties, including the PRC, the UK, and other leading countries. And the only exception I believe is the US, which has signed on to the ICCPR but (not) yet the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
That said, I think Hong Kong is unique in being the only jurisdiction in the world to have gone one step further. And the one step further that we’ve done is to refer directly to the ICCPR and the ICESCR in our constitution in article thirty-nine, and to state that the provisions of these two covenants operate essentially as the foundations or the floor below which domestic protection of human rights cannot fall. So it’s a guarantee of minimum standards of protection. And because as I mentioned earlier, we have a very vibrant common law system operating in Hong Kong similar to that in this country, our courts are able to cite decisions of the United Nations Human Rights Committee on individual references under the optional protocol. And our courts are also able to cite and use decisions of the European Courts of Human Rights at Strasbourg in order to guide, inform, their decision-making processes. And all these overseas or international case decisions operate as persuasive authority in our system. And our lawyers use it, our litigants use it. The government respects these decision; the government in fact invokes these decisions regularly. And that’s what makes for an extraordinarily healthy system of human rights protection. Arguably, Hong Kong can be proud to retain its pole position as the one jurisdiction in East Asia that has the most liberal and cosmopolitan human rights protection over there.
MCHUGH: Does the special status also extend to freedom of the press in Hong Kong versus that in Beijing?
FUNG: Absolutely it does. Because freedom of the press is one major component of the right to free expression guaranteed under the basic law. And we see that right exercised on a daily basis. Hong Kong, you may be surprised to learn, has the highest number of newspapers per capita anywhere in the world. We have close to thirty daily newspapers for a population of some seven million. Which is an extraordinary figure. And the circulation figures are very high. And what you find in the Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong, which is of course the majority of newspapers in circulation, the overwhelming majority, you find there are extraordinary diversity of views. Ranging from very serious, quality papers—the equivalent of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, that we have in Hong Kong—all the way to what you would characterize as popular press, or even gutter press. So that we have our equivalent to the National Inquirer; we have our equivalent to yellow journalism. And that spectrum of newspaper publishing I think is interesting, because it shows an extraordinary freedom, one might even say anarchy, in Hong Kong newspaper publishing.
And the range of political views expressed in these papers is again pretty amazing. You have, obviously, pro-Beijing papers; you have pro-Taiwan papers; you have some, you would say, pro-establishment Hong Kong papers; left wing, right wing; and what is remarkable is that the pro-Beijing press actually has the lowest circulation of all. And that’s always been the case in Hong Kong, for many, many years. Today it remains exactly the same. The largest circulation daily in Hong Kong is a pro-Taiwan paper, which is actually, the publishers of whom reside in Taiwan. So the two highest-subscribed-to newspapers are the ones which are essentially anti-establishment, both in terms of anti-Hong Kong and anti-Beijing establishment, and the fact that they are allowed to circulate freely and are popularly subscribed to I think is strong evidence of the existence of a free press. Indeed so free has been our press that the British administration in Hong Kong before ’97 regularly remarked that Hong Kong newspapers were far worse than their London counterparts in making life difficult for them. And one can well believe it. Certainly when I was in the government, both under Chris Patton as well under Sijh Tung before and after change of sovereignty, I personally felt that. And each one of us working in the government felt the sting of the press, but we wouldn’t have it any other way because that’s the system with which we’ve grown up and that’s the system that we’re committed to preserving under our constitution.
MCHUGH: That is Daniel Fung, the former Solicitor General of Hong Kong. Coming up jazz and the VOA.
BIEL: Voice Of America really began during World War II as a effort to get an American voice on international radio.
MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: The Voice Of America has reached millions of listeners around the world since the closing days of World War II. One of the most important VOA personalities was Willis Conover, who hosted several jazz programs. His jazz programs were particular programs in the former Soviet Union and provided for many listeners their first impression of the West. But as Common Ground‘s Ken Mills reports, getting jazz music aired on VOA was not an easy task.
KEN MILLS: After World War II, the United States began international radio broadcasts of music, news, and propaganda. You are hearing a recording of the Voice Of America from the early 1950s.
[male crooner singing]
MILLS: At the time that this recording was made it could not be broadcast on domestic US radio stations.
VOA ANNOUNCER: “Those voices you hear are the voices of men in chains. They are the voices of a Russian slave labor gang, tragic victims of that human debasement: Communism.”
MILLS: Dr. Michael Biel, Professor of Radio and Television at Morehead State University in Kentucky, tells about the early years of the Voice Of America.
BIEL: Voice Of America really began during World War II as a effort to get an American voice on international radio, because the other countries had done it before us. The Netherlands started in the ’20s, the British started with their Empire Service, 1931. Vatican Radio was on; and both the Germans and the Japanese were on. But the American government had not yet put a station on the air. Now, actually there were American voices on short wave, on international short-wave radio, but they were all commercial. NBC and CBS both had international short-wave stations. WLW in Cincinnati had one, and there were two or three other radio stations which did international broadcasting. And VOA was formed, I suppose, with the Office of War Information—Elmer Davis, a CBS commentator, had been commandeered to take over or to start up that agency at the beginning of the war. And they gently nudged the broadcasters into turning over the programming aspects of their transmitters to the US government.
MILLS: The VOA became the official voice of the US government and its broadcasts were only for international consumption.
BIEL: Well the Voice Of America is the official voice of the American government. They have the right to editorialize. They have the right to make statements which are the opinion of the US government. Now we can call that, truthfully, propaganda. And the government, though, when they set up Voice Of America felt that it was OK for the American government to propagandize foreigners—people from other countries—but it was not proper for the US government to propagandize to its own citizens. So the law was set up so that any publication of the United States Information Agency—which includes Voice Of America, it includes magazines and books and movies that they publish and produce—that no publication of the USIA would be allowed to be disseminated to American citizens on American territory. Now this doesn’t mean that you would not be able to listen to Voice Of America, because the short-wave transmitters were here in the United States and you could hear those. And there were relay stations all over the world—in Tangiers, Morocco, in Germany, in Portugal—and just as you could pick those transmitters up all around the world, you could pick those transmitters up here in the United States also. So you would be able to hear it yourself, but the USIA was not allowed to purposefully program for American citizens on American territory.
VOA ANNOUNCER: “Heroes of America.” [followed by patriotic American music]
MILLS: This broadcast from 1953 was typical of Voice Of America programs.
[patriotic American music]
VOA ANNOUNCER: “The story of a nation is the story of its heroes. These are heroes of America.”
[patriotic American music]
MILLS: Radio drama played an important role in telling the American story. The Voice Of America produced hour after hour of stories promoting American heroes—real and fictional..
[patriotic American music]
VOA ANNOUNCER: “Every nation has its idols. But of all hero-worshipping nations on Earth, none is more given to this trait than the American. The American is disposed to heap laurels on the shrine of any outstanding man, be his accomplishment governing his country or knocking a ball farther with a stick than anyone else. The heroes we’re going to tell you about on this program may be outstanding men who once actually existed and who played a vital part in the building of America—or we may tell you about legendary characters possessing superhuman strength and intelligence, heroes who exist only in the active imaginations of American storytellers. Today you will hear the story of a legendary hero, king of the north woods lumbermen, Paul Bunyan. And here to tell you about him is Russell Black.”
RUSELL BLACK: “Paul Bunyan….
MILLS: The VOA also provided firsthand commentary from alleged former residents of Communist countries.
VOA ANNOUNCER: “The next voice you hear will not be that of a professional radio actor. It is the actual voice of a refugee who just escaped from behind the Iron Curtain and is standing at our microphone now to bring you her story.
PURPORTED IRON CURTAIN REFUGEE: They call me Mira Sovoboda. That is not my real name. I cannot reveal my name publicly for obvious reasons.
My family believes that I am dead. But I have lived to reach the United States and to tell my story. It is my own true story, the story of thousands like me, who have tried to escape from the Soviet Union or from Soviet-dominated countries. They call me Mira Sovoboda. This is my story.”
MILLS: The VOA had a true international broadcasting star, jazz music host Willis Conover. Dr. Biel talks about him.
BIEL: Well, Willis Conover was a very, very famous man everywhere in the world except here in the United States. He broadcast a program, “Music USA,” starting in 1955, until his death only a few years ago. And the program originally was divided into two halves. The first half being pop music and the second half being jazz. And apparently he had a lot of problems at first even convincing the conservative government in those McCarthy years of—you know it would be 1954—to broadcast jazz.
MILLS: From a 1969 radio interview Willis Conover speaks about what motivated him.
WILLIS CONOVER: And I also am not that much interested in making money. I’m interested in two things: one is the artistic and the other is the social. Social is supposed to be a dirty word, it’s supposed to imply you’re very leftist or something. All I mean by that is I want a thing to be, artistically, I want a thing to be done well so that when I’m through I can feel, “Gee that was good and I’m glad I was connected with it. Now let’s do the next thing.” And socially, well, it gets back to the same point I made. I like to see people who have a good heart and a good talent get in touch with other people who have their own variation on that and I like to pull the rug out from under people who are opposed to that.
MILLS: Willis Conover was an opinionated man.
CONOVER: I can enjoy folk music, but I hate the attitudes that go with it. Anything that is fashionable. It became fashionable to go in for folk music. To get, get down and get your soul where it’s supposed to be and to drop your final “g”s and so forth [interviewer laughs] and that bothers me. And if people want to do that I don’t care, but I don’t, I am offended by the attitude that therefore now I am cooler than thou because I am talking folk, whereas fifteen years ago I would have been talking hep, not even hip.
MILLS: Willis Conover’s opinions counted for a lot at the Voice Of America, including its music choices. According to Dr. Biel there were some rules that weren’t to be violated.
BIEL: One of the articles about Conover in 1956, about a year after the program began, mentioned that there were a few rules that they had in putting in program together. There should be no physically suggestive lyrics. Nothing that might be racially offensive. For example, Conover never identified black performers specifically as being black. And then there also was a rule that there was absolutely no rock and roll. And Conover is quoted as saying, “I see no reason to poison the ears of overseas listeners.”
MILLS: Willis Conover and the other leaders of the Voice Of America hated rock and roll.
BIEL: They had this antagonism against rock and roll. And rock and roll, is you know, could possibly be that they considered rock and roll to be more of an anarchist type of music, that it was a complete disruption of the powers that be. In a sense the American government and American adults felt that rock and roll was a “communist plot” to overtake the youth of America. And there were some zealots who actually came out with statements like that. Well of course, over in the Soviet Union, Khruschev was saying that rock and roll was a capitalistic plot to overthrow the Communist government and to steal away the Communist youth. Which of course to a certain extent it probably was. It was probably far more of a capitalist plot than it would be a Communist plot. If nothing, rock and roll was a capitalistic venture, that’s for sure.
MILLS: According to Dr. Biel, the Voice Of America missed an opportunity by refusing to play rock and roll.
BIEL: But if they really wanted to set up a youthful antagonism against the Communist, against the Communist governments in these countries, that rock and roll would have been a perfect way to do it. That this was the music of America’s youth; this also would have been the music of the Eastern European youth, if they were given a chance to get it.
MILLS: Truth in international broadcasting’s sometimes hard to find. And one person’s truth is another person’s propaganda.
BIEL: We would like to think that, well, anything you would hear on the Voice Of America would be true. And anything you would hear on Radio Moscow would be false. But I don’t think either of those things are the case. I remember when I was starting to listen to short-wave radio in the late ’50s and early ’60s, hearing reports from Radio Moscow and from Radio Havana, Cuba, that there are secret army bases in Florida where people are being trained to go and invade Cuba and to overthrow the Castro government. And of course the American stations were saying, “No, that’s untrue. They do not have secret bases. We are not planning on invading Cuba.” And of course we did have those secret bases—which apparently weren’t so secret—and we were planning on invading Cuba. And we did invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. And what the Voice Of America and the American stations were saying was untrue. And what Radio Moscow and Radio Havana, Cuba, were saying, was true. So you know, who are we supposed to believe when we find that we have been lied to by our own government?
VOA ANNOUNCER: “Secret Missions: based on the accounts and experiences of Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias, wartime deputy chief of the ONI, the Office of Naval Intelligence….”
MILLS: Reporting for Common Ground, I’m Ken Mills.
PORTER: VOA still distributes cultural programming, but today the Voice Of America is primarily known as a news service. As our special series on international radio continues next week, Ken Mills will uncover the shadowy world of clandestine broadcasting where what you hear is not always what it appears to be.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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