ANSON CHAN: What Hong Kong means to me

(This is an excerpt of speeech by former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang at the Institute of Directors luncheon on 9 June 2004)

I feel that in the current tense political climate, given everything that has happened in recent months, we need to remind ourselves what Hong Kong means to all of us and why we choose to make this place our home.

Every time I return from visits in the region, my first sight of the Hong Kong skyline never fails to bring a sense of homecoming and well-being, Yes, even in the worst times. Hong Kong is by no means perfect, but having lived here for more than 50 years, what impresses me most about this place is that it is in many ways a model of freedom, tolerance and opportunity: a land where hard work and enterprise are still by and large rewarded; a city we can be proud to bequeath to our children.

Ours is a free-wheeling, argumentative but law-abiding community. Differences exist on all kinds of issues - from social provision to civil liberties and governance. But such differences are entirely natural and healthy because this is what happens in an open, pluralistic society.

Every city is defined by its values. The values that we hold most dear are essentially: First, the rule of law - that all people are entitled to the same protection and sanction under the law, administered by an open, transparent, clean and accountable government and an independent judiciary.

Second, freedom in all its forms: freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of religion, for example.

Third, tolerance: every individual's right to think what he likes and to say what he thinks without being denigrated or labelled; the capacity of society to allow different voices to be heard, to seek a consensus whenever possible through persuasion and not intimidation, coercion or brain-washing, and when persuasion fails, to agree to disagree.

Fourth, small government, which allows market forces to decide on the allocation of resources and which concerns itself mainly with providing the framework within which free men and women can build a decent life for themselves and their families.

And fifth, opportunity: the freedom to pursue our own goals in our own way as long as we do not harm others or deprive others of their rights.

If I have to single out the value that we most cherish and which we would do our utmost to protect, I would say that it is freedom, particularly freedom of speech and of the press. Freedom of speech and the free flow of information are essential to the well-being of a modern community. Indeed, they form the bedrock of an open, pluralistic society, which we pride ourselves on being. But there is a problem about freedom of expression. We all think it is a great thing as long as we are free to say what we like. But the minute someone says something bad or disagreeable, we think it is an outrage. In other words, we all wish to see the news published objectively and impartially - and from our own point of view.

There is always a temptation to say that freedom is being abused, that it has degenerated into a charter for journalists to pry and editors to pontificate. It seems all too legitimate to accuse the media of being irresponsible when facts are wrong, quotes are mangled and stories are grossly personalised.

So what is the case for freedom of expression and the right to information? It boils down to a point of principle - the fundamental right to know. As the playwright George Bernard Shaw argued: "The right to know is like the right to live. It is fundamental and unconditional in its assumption that knowledge, like life, is a desirable thing." The right to know certainly goes hand in hand with the right to lead lives of dignity and freedom. Asia would be far less free today if the media had not been so vigorous and outspoken in the past.

Anyone in government or business should regard freedom of expression and information as a positive asset. They should recognise how the media can both improve management performance, in the public as well as the private sector, and contribute directly to economic expansion. When a TV documentary or a newspaper feature highlights the poor performance of a business outlet or a government department, management should welcome being put on notice that things are going wrong. This gives management an opportunity to put matters right.

But the media and its role in monitoring management are only part of the story. The supply of information, its analysis and timely distribution are increasingly an economic asset in their own right. This is one of Hong Kong's key competitive advantages. Hong Kong has already joined the ranks of the world's successful service economies. Without open and unrestricted communications, and full access to the global flow of information, we cannot hope to retain our current standing in the world economy.

The right to analyse, comment and report is essential to both the credibility and efficiency of Hong Kong and its economy. The media is the first and most accessible source of information for the business community on how markets are moving and how investment prospects are changing.

The media is the most effective forum in which business and corporate performance can be debated and, in many ways, the ideal market place in which business knowledge and concepts compete for customers.

The media must be free to deal with everything that influences the well-being of society and which can mar its future. In other words, it must be allowed to report on political and social issues as well as commercial and financial policies.

There is no such thing as a little freedom. We must accept freedom in its entirety - warts and all. But Winston Churchill had a comment on freedom of expression which I think puts it firmly in its place: "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously."

Our media can best protect its own interests by aspiring to the highest standards. However, I am aware that the intense competition among the Chinese-language press has led to debilitating price wars, driving some titles down market and leading to a general dumbing down in a scramble for juicier stories, sharper angles and more sensational headlines.

The media should take it upon itself to better inform and illuminate the public. By that I mean a duty to tell the truth, free of self-censorship and political correctness, and a commitment to fair play rather than to engage in sensationalism. We have in Hong Kong, publishers, editors, broadcasters and journalists who are courageously attempting to give the public a little of what they should have and a little less of what they want. But we need more such individuals.

Freedom of expression and information are the bedrock guarantee of our way of life. It is enshrined in our constitution. More importantly, it is embedded in the hearts and minds of our people. That is why our community is so vigilant and reacts so sensitively to any perceived weakening of its rights in these areas.

Hong Kong has been through a great deal in the past seven years. We have many issues to face and many problems to solve, including the question of governance. We will need to forge a Hong Kong consensus on these issues. We need to find home-grown answers to matters which rest within our constitutional autonomy, bearing in mind our unique relationship with our sovereign. But above all, we need to find unity of purpose based on a clear appreciation that our past, present and future success rests on the solid foundation of a free society under the rule of law.

To conclude, let me sum up what Hong Kong means to me. It is the land of the free - freedom of men and women to go about their business without let or hindrance, to make choices for themselves and their families. Freedom from arbitrary or interfering government. Freedom that promotes opportunity - not just economic and commercial opportunity, but the opportunity to develop personally, socially, culturally and spiritually in a society that values hard work, tolerance, respect for family and each other.

Freedom is not easily won. We have the constitutional right to enjoy freedom and the constitutional obligation to guard against its erosion.