Monday, 2 September 2019

"I learned revolution in Hong Kong" - Dr. Sun Yatsen

Sun Yatsen at Loke Yew Hall, 1923
"The people of Hong Kong think of Sun Yat-sen as great even though he failed more than hesucceeded. They will not go back to the time when only the winner is acknowledged to be king and the losers are declared as bandits. Their historical mindset has changed. Thus they will respect leaders not by success alone, but by their ideas, vision and personal qualities".

So wrote Professor Wang Gungwu, the historian and former Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong University many years ago, but his words are totally relevant today.  Dr Sun, who studied medicine at what was later to become Hong Kong University, was the figurehead who drew together many different threads of reform and modernism, which led to the overthrow of the imperial system in 1911, and the foundation of the Chinese Republic. Dr Sun's San Min Ju I,  the "Three People's Principles"  are based on the unity of a nation of many different peoples,  on the principle of democractic participation in government, and the concept that the welfare of the people should be the goal of good governance.  But overturning four thousand years of feudalism in the largest nation in the world cannot possibly come without a price.  Sun wasn't able to contain the many factions that evolved, and China descended into decades of civil war.  Nontheless, Dr Sun, the "father of modern China" is respected by most Chinese, whatever their different affiliations.

In 1923, Dr Sun returned to Hong Kong University, and gave a famous speech " I learned revolution in Hong Kong".  For the full text and background, please follow this link.   Now that Hong Kong is facing great changes, way beyond the comprehension of the western media, those who care about the people and the region other than as pawns in global geopoltics would do well to remember what Dr Sun stood for.  The motto of Hong Kong University (where Dr Sun studied before it was incorporated as a university) is "Sapienta et Virtu" - Wisdom and Virtue ie Integrity.  Wisdom does not come in an instant : people make misjudgements,and  things go horribly wrong.  That's only human. but without "virtu", ie ideals, there's no meaning. Better to strive, even in wrong and self destructive directions, than to believe in nothing.  But at the same time we must not remember the extreme background behind the 1911 revolution. China was an occupied country, trapped in feudal poverty because that suited the rulers, whether they be Manchu or other countries which had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  Becoming a true nation, to Sun and his followers, meant modernization and a new Chinese identity.  Just as people reach maturity through learning to rely on themselves, not others, nations needs to find maturity not shaped by what outside interests might prefer.  in the case of China, with 5000 years of history, extreme poverty and the largest population in the world, this process cannot happen overnight.

There have always been people in Hong Kong capable of public service and civic responsibility, but there was little outlet.  Dr Sun's words influenced my life. I heard about Dr Sun's visit to HKU and his famous speech when i was quite young, from my uncle and Dad, who heard it direct from their uncle, who had attended the speech.  Similar ideas shaped his life, too.  After graduating HKU Medical school in 1912, he was elected as head of the Sanitary Board in Hong Kong in 1916, at the age of only 24.  The Sanitary Board was the only public body with any form of elected representation. Later it evolved into the Urban Council, which also remained the only outlet for which people could vote in Hong  Kong until 1997.  Hong Kong never was "democratic" by any means.  The Sanitary Board was responsible for public health but social conditions were so appalling that its purview cold be stretched to social reform, working conditions and so on. Dangerous stuff, then and maybe even now.   My great uncle died young, not "successful" in the eyes of the world, but greatly loved. When he died, his funeral was attended by many big names in town, and the community raised money for the much photographed white marble gravestone in the middle of the cemetery that's now on the tourist trail.  "If they'd paid their medical bills", someone quipped, "He wouldn't have died young and poor".  

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