DANIEL FUNG

 


In his impeccable Oxford grey suit and gold tie, a confident Daniel Fung strides into the Connecticut Room, one of the small private spaces of the exclusive American Club.  Fung is a new member, he says, but he is clearly at home here on the 47th floor of Exchange Square, in this room with a panoramic view of Victoria Harbour far below.

It is early June, a little more than 15 years since Fung flew to Beijing with money raised in Hong Kong for the Tiananmen Square protesters. But this is a much different Daniel Fung, one who has adapted quite comfortably to the corridors of power in the intervening years. He is a wide-ranging thinker, able to converse on a dizzying number of topics with an ease that borders on glibness.

During the course of our lunch he manages to segue from celebrating Martin Lee's birthday in London in the late 1980s to his favourite wines (he prefers Burgundies to Bourdeaux but has a special fondness for New Zealand sauvignon blanc) to the Russo-Finnish War and the surprising ability of the Finns to hold their own. This in turn leads on to a discussion of ``Finlandisation'' during the days of the Soviet Union and possible parallels to Taiwan today.

It was this supple facility with language and ideas that helped him become one of Hong Kong's youngest Queen's Counsels, the highest rank of the legal profession, and which has kept him at the top.

Had he stayed on the path indicated by his dramatic Tiananmen gesture, he might now be a leading light of the opposition.  Instead, he is a local delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and an ally of tycoons such as Ronnie Chan, whose Hong Kong Development Forum, a discussion group for pro-Beijing business leaders, includes Fung as a key member.

On April 26, when the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee discussed its decision to rule out full democracy for Hong Kong, Fung was one of just three local businessmen called upon to respond to public remarks made by Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary-general of the NPC Standing Committee. In his brief turn at the microphone, Fung called the decision a chance for a ``creative beginning'' for Hong Kong's political reform process.

When asked about his change of political stripes, Fung says that he has simply changed along with China. ``People do take different paths in different stages of their lives,'' he says. ``I believe if you are true to yourself, things will work. Someone who never changes their stance may not always be true to himself.''

It is a matter, Fung says, of understanding that the Chinese Communist Party today is much different than it was in its ideological heyday. ``I think it is important to understand the party in the present context. The position it occupies is not dissimilar from that of the Tory party in late Victorian England,'' he says. ``An ambitious young person who wanted to shinny up the greasy pole would join the party. [The Communist Party] has a similar function. We know from the way they approach things that it is pragmatic as opposed to ideological.''

Regardless of how mainland communism has changed, Fung has done well under both British rule and Chinese sovereignty.

Currently chairman of the Broadcast Authority, he was the last Solicitor General before the handover, after his 1994 appointment by Governor Chris Patten, and he maintained the post after the handover.

As Solicitor General, in 1998 Fung argued the landmark right-of-abode case, contending that Hong Kong had the right to dramatically limit the number of mainland children allowed to live here. The government lost, but refused to accept defeat and sent the decision to Beijing to be re-interpreted - in favour of the government - by the NPC Standing Committee. It was the first, and until the recent controversy over electoral reform, the only case in which the NPC stepped in to supercede local authorities on a legal matter.

After stepping down as Solicitor General in 1998, Fung taught at Harvard Law School and is currently chairman of Des Voeux Chambers, one of Hong Kong's most prominent legal firms.

He also remains engaged in political affairs. Fung recently said that he and a group of like-minded lawyers planned to set up a new, as yet unnamed, group to help pursue better relations between Hong Kong and the mainland.

He also is a member of the World Bank Advisory Council on Law and Justice and is a special adviser to the United Nations Development Programme on rule of law issues and corporate governance in China. In short: Fung is a man who matters.

Fung grew up in a world of affluence, spending his childhood in Hong Kong, first near Kowloon City and then in the wealthy district of Kowloon Tong where his parents still live.

His father, a medical doctor, sent him to Diocesan Boys' School, where he rubbed shoulders with other children of Hong Kong's elite.

``I grew up in a Hong Kong much different from today. It was a very quiet place,'' a backwater really, on the edge of three ``giant societies''', as Fung calls them - the People's Republic of China, Soviet Union and the United States.

``We had a sense of dislocation, growing up in a colonial society where Chinese history was only taught up to 1912 and not beyond that. We had no context to locate ourselves in. We found ourselves on the edge of an empire but Hong Kong was not the crown jewel. India was.'' It was a tumultuous time in Hong Kong, with its huge neighbour in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and pro-communist riots inspired by the upheaval spreading through the colony. During those days of unrest in 1966-1967, Fung remembers he ``had a great time'' because school was often out and exams were cancelled.

However, it was a different story for his parents. His father had to venture into dangerous parts of town to care for his patients and he worried about the future. As a result, Fung was sent to boarding school in England. He would stay in the country for the next 11 years. The biggest shock came not from academic expectations but from being thrust on to sporting fields to play football and cricket. ``In Hong Kong, we did not play any sports, not to mention team sports or cricket.''

At 18, Fung entered University College London, obtained a law degree at 21 and, later, his masters degree from the same university. After a year in practice, he became a qualified barrister in 1975 and thought he had it made. ``I thought I was on top of the world at that time but the reality is I knew nothing,'' he says, adding that he regrets taking law as a first degree without enough life experience to appreciate what the law was about.

We take a break from the conversation, finally, as the starters arrive - cold cucumber soup for Fung. He manages to take a few sips before we are back to his life. ``It would have been better if I started practice at 32 instead of 22,'' he says, musing that he would have liked to have become a writer - or at least worked at something else before practicing law.

``Before entering university I had a long series of discussions with my father about whether I should go at all because I wanted to be a writer,'' Fung says. He was attracted to the brave deeds of Ernest Hemingway and the risks he wrote of in his books. Hemingway's life in Cuba fascinates him and he is especially moved by the novels Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Ironically, it's when the American prime rib arrives that talk switches to Hong Kong politics. ``Hong Kong is part of China, not the centre of China,'' Fung says with assurance - or is there a bit of the neo-colonial fear that one is still on the periphery? In any event, Fung believes that Hong Kong people think too highly of themselves, and don't understand their true place in the new China.

Fung contends that provincial governments in China have been more proactive in seeking and protecting their own interests, while Hong Kong's government is ``disengaging itself, playing less of a role'' than it should in the mainland's development. Further, while Hong Kong bills itself as an international city, the way people conduct themselves demonstrates very much the opposite. He was disappointed, for example, when the Hong Kong government declined an invitation to an international forum on Asian security with the excuse that Hong Kong does not have responsibilty for its defence.

``We've spent a lot of energy on domestic issues. But we should strike a balance between domestic obsession and international engagement.

``People have sucked all the oxygen out of public debates. Everything is domestic.''

Fung still hadn't started his main course. We worried that he wouldn't give himself a chance to eat. Fortunately, he was just waiting for some strong Engish mustard to season the beef. After several quick bites, Fung continued. This is a man, after all, who eats to live, but who lives to talk.

``I became involved in the constitutional drafting in 1985 following the Blueprint of the Joint Declaration. It was risk-taking work as it involved a clash of cultures and perspectives [between the Chinese and British governments]. However, unless you had decided to leave, it was better to be engaged than not be engaged.''

From the 1980s Fung fast-forwarded to the current controversy over Hong Kong's electoral issues. He would like to see more occupations covered in the functional constituencies to make Legco more democratic, he says. But he wouldn't be drawn on specifics except to say that a number of occupations - he mentions homemakers - are not represented by functional constituencies.

He is firm on one thing, his opposition to direct election, or one-man-one-vote, for chief executive, despite having twice travelled to England with Martin Lee to lobby for direct Legco elections in the late 1980s.

``An overwhelming majority of systems worldwide have indirect elections for the head of government. In the United States, the electoral college for the president is not one-man-one-vote, otherwise Al Gore would have been the president, not GeorgeWBush,'' he says, making an argument that ignores the fact that a popular vote in the US determines how the electors vote - and that the US has direct representation at every other level of government.

Fung cites the parliamentary system in Britain as another example, because the leader of the majority party serves as prime minister. But again, the parties compete in democratic elections, a fact he chooses to ignore.

Fung's argument that representational democracy in the West is somehow equivalent to the Hong Kong system may not have convinced his interlocutors. But there is no question that Fung has one of the quickest and liveliest minds in Hong Kong. It will be intersting to see what success he has in pushing reforms in China. but the path he has taken over the last 15 years suggest that Fung somehow will manage to find himself deeply engaged in the momentous changes sweeping the world's largest country. - by Emily Tang and Mark Clifford      WEEKEND STANDARD     12 June 2004

 


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