Last month, South China Morning Post (SCMP) published a story on the life of Ms Emily Lau Wai-hing, a former journalist who later became the first woman directly elected to the Legislative Council of Hong Kong in the 1991 elections.
The lengthy article narrated the triumphs and tribulations of Ms Lau, who had learned very early in her life from her father that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which came to power in 1949, posed a real existential threat to their safety and their wealth.
Ms Lau’s early life
According to Ms Lau, her half-brother was unhappy about moving from Guangzhou to Hong Kong in 1948 and therefore decided to return to China. Unfortunately, the CCP had arrested him and he was held for ransom as their terms were, “Send back all the money you have and we will let this man go.” Fearing the safety of their son, the family willingly surrendered everything, which ultimately left them penniless.
Ms Lau’s father died when she was young, and being part of a big family of 15 children, she was then separated from her brothers and sisters, and was sent to live with her aunt in Wan Chai.
There, her generous uncle paid for her tertiary pursuits at the University of Southern California. Being inspired by Robert Upshur Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the famed Watergate scandal, she pursued and completed a degree in broadcast journalism in 1976.
Life as a journalist
Upon returning to Hong Kong, Ms Lau was set on finding a job aligned to journalism.
Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), a Hong Kong television broadcasting company, offered her a job but as the pay was not good, she declined the offer.
Later, she approached the news editor of SCMP, Mr Robin Hutcheon. She remembers him saying, “You’re in luck, we are looking for a senior reporter, but you will do.”
She worked with SCMP for a couple of years and then went to work at TVB for three years.
Working with TVB allowed Ms Lau to cover stories such as the Sino-British negotiations, and had the opportunity to interview Edward Youde, the chief clerk at the Foreign Office, who was appointed by the new governor of Hong Kong.
Her stint with TVB had opened doors for Ms Lau to branch out and subsequently work with BBC where she was assigned to work for Newsnight, and then the Breakfast Time.
After a year, the British Broadcasting Corporation chose to extend her contract. But she declined the offer citing that she wanted to return to Hong Kong.
Beginning of Political Career
Subsequently, in 1984, Ms Lau went to London to interview Foreign Office Minister Timothy Renton, as she was working for Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER),
In the interview, Ms Lau posed stinging questions as to why the British were not granting Hong Kong democracy. At the end, Ms Lau recalls Mr Timothy asking her, “Emily, will you stand for election?” To this, she responded by saying, “Yes minister, but where are the elections? You Brits are not giving us the chance.”
With the passage of time, direct elections were held for the first time in Hong Kong in 1991. And Ms Lau wanted to contest. However, to avoid a conflict of interest, she had to resign from FEER and step down as the chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
She campaigned in Sha Tin, New Territories East, and won; thus becoming the first woman ever to be directly elected.
Ms Lau’s political escapade
In the interview with SCMP, Ms Lau talks of the many uphill battles she had as a Legislator. She says that the Hong Kong Legislature had a practice where members could table their own bills, often referred to as Private Member Bills. And one of her biggest test came when she tabled a bill calling for a fully elected legislature.
Her bill was debated on the same day as Governor Chris Patten’s bill on how to reform the functional constituencies. However, Ms Lau’s bill was defeated by a vote.
Ms Lau recalls that as a legislator she had to face extreme scrutiny from the Chinese government on her movements. She had to apply for a home visit permit to visit mainland China. She added that exemption was only given when she visited China as a member of the Legislative Committee delegation, where she would be given special dispensation.
Ms Lau has a distinction of having served the Hong Kong Legislature for a quarter century, which basically means that she won 7 terms without losing a single election. In 2016, however, Ms Lau finally stepped down from the Legislative Committee.
There is an interesting story that Ms Lau shared with the interviewer. Apparently while having a conversation with someone once, that person said, “Ms Lau, you stepped down, the government should give you some decoration.”
To this, she had answered, “No need. Even if they did, I would not take it. I think my supporters wouldn’t want me to take it.”
In all this, her position was, “I don’t need anything from anybody, I speak my mind and say whatever I like.”
Ms Lau as Board Member of China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group
On retirement, Ms Lau sat on the Board of Directors of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, which was formed in Hong Kong in 2007.
Recalling this experience, Ms Lau says, “I always say my job is to give a voice to the voiceless. Some youngsters are upset with us for not being able to deliver democracy. Yes, we didn’t get democracy, but don’t say our efforts are futile. Had it not been for the millions of Hong Kong people who have fought for decades, Hong Kong could become like Macau within days, and maybe like Guangzhou within weeks.”
The SCMP story ends with Ms Lau reminding sceptics not to downplay the efforts that have been made to ensure personal safety, the rule of law, an independent judiciary in Hong Kong.