Clinton Global Initiative Asia

Posted by stephanie on Dec 19th, 2008
Dec 19

I extended my stay in Hong Kong in order to participate in the first ever Clinton Global Initiative Asia conference happening in the city Dec. 2-3.  Becky Yang, a fellow Vanderbilt graduate and staff member of CGI, informed me about this event, which happened to coincide with my stay in HK.  Initially I was only going to work one day before the actual event assisting the staff in charge of the volunteers with registering the volunteers, but after being there and helping out, I could feel the energy and excitement of the event and knew I would regret not staying.  About 12 hours before my flight to Beijing was to leave, I called the airline and changed my flight (it was free to change it!  I highly recommend Cathay Pacific airlines) to a few days later in order to participate in this groundbreaking event.  I was staying with a fellow Vanderbilt graduate in Hong Kong named Jen Hammonds and her family, and they were luckily most gracious in allowing me to stay with them a few extra days!  After getting everything arranged to accommodate my last minute spontaneity, I geared up for an early start the next morning to help set-up the event.  I was really fortunate to be able to volunteer at CGI Asia.  More than 500 people applied to volunteer, and only about 150 were accepted.  Most of the volunteers came from Hong Kong (for the practical purpose of making sure that the volunteers could make it—imagine if a lot of the volunteers had been coming from Thailand and were stranded at the airport at the time!), but since Hong Kong is such a global city, the volunteers hailed from all over the world.

I should probably explain a little bit more what the Clinton Global Initiative is exactly.  CGI was started in 2005 by former President Bill Clinton to “turn ideas into action and help our world move beyond the current state of globalization to a more integrated global community of shared benefits, responsibilities, and values.”   CGI meetings bring together former and current heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, philanthropists, CEOs, directors of NGOs, and prominent members of the media.  All the participants at the conference put forth a Commitment to Action, which translates practical goals into meaningful results.  Commitments vary in size and duration and can focus on diverse regions, issues, and types of activities.  Many commitments are the result of new and diverse partnerships across different sectors.  The CGI Asia conference focused on the areas of education, energy and climate change, and public health, and bringing leaders in these fields and from around Asia to develop new ideas and approaches to tackling these issues.  If members fail to reach their commitments, they are not invited back to the conference the next year.

I helped with a wide variety of activities at the conference.   All of the work of the volunteers was very behind the scenes, so we definitely weren’t schmoozing with the participants or Bill Clinton, but just being a part of this experience was amazing.  Getting to know the other volunteers was also really rewarding.  I had the chance to get to know university students from mainland China studying in the fields of journalism and law, students studying abroad in Hong Kong, a flight attendant from Thailand, and people from all across Asia.  While serving as a greeter in the lobby, I also got a chance to say hi to Jet Li!  Because there were more than enough volunteers and staff around to make the event run smoothly, I also had many opportunities to sit in on some of the panel discussions and debates.   During these I heard Bill Clinton speak many times, as well as Lee Kwan Yew (the former Prime Minister of Singapore), current president of the Philippines Gloria Arroyo, China’s foreign minister, the current president of Mongolia Nambaryn Enkhbayar, and many other movers and shakers in Asia.   One of the most interesting discussions I heard that was highly relevant to my project was a panel discussion on diversity in Asia.  In this discussion, the Mongolian president said that the word “diversity” should be replaced with freedom, and the Asian idea of “unity” should be replaced with responsibility.  I found it interesting that he associated the idea of diversity as directly interchangeable with freedom, and that unity mean responsibility.  Asia is interesting in its diversity.  Some countries, such as India, are incredibly diverse place while countries such as Korea as considered highly homogenous.  President Enkhbayar feels Asia cannot have complete freedom in the sense of anarchy but it also can’t have complete responsibility in the sense of authoritarianism.

I was really happy that I decided to stay and participate in the CGI Asia Conference (I even got to shake Bill Clinton’s hand on the last day!)  Hong Kong was a great city, and I was lucky to have so many interesting opportunities while there.  Also, it was so much warmer than Beijing, which I wouldn’t appreciate fully until arriving in Beijing on the coldest day of the year thus far!  More on Beijing later!

The Father of Democracy in Hong Kong

Posted by stephanie on Dec 18th, 2008
Dec 18

During my time in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to meet with renowned democracy activist Martin Lee.  Mr. Lee is the major face in the Hong Kong democracy movement on the international stage, and is a controversial figure in Hong Kong; human rights activists call him “The Father of Democracy” in HK and Beijing officials call him “a running dog of the colonists.”  The relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China is an interesting one. Hong Kong is operating under the “one country, two systems” policy, which was proposed in 1984 by Deng Xiaoping to come into effect in 1997.  Upon reunification with China in 1997, Hong Kong could retain their separate political systems away from the practice of “socialism” in the mainland.  This high degree of autonomy will last for 50 years from 1997.  Hong Kong is deemed a “special administrative region” of China, and it is responsible for its own domestic affairs, although diplomatic relations and national defense are still under the jurisdiction of the Beijing government.  Mr. Lee is a lawyer, and was chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association from 1980-1983.  He was first elected to the Legislative Council of HK in 1985, and from 1985-1989 served as a member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee, which was the body appointed by Beijing to draft HK’s post-1997 constitution.  However, a watershed moment occurred in China in 1989 with the Tiananmen Square massacre.  Mr. Lee expressed his opposition to this event and was forbidden to enter mainland China ever again.  He was preparing to leave Hong Kong, but decided that he couldn’t leave his people when they were so worried about their future.  Mr. Lee wanted to preserve Hong Kong’s rule of law in order to maintain the people’s freedoms.  However, he soon realized that simply keeping a rule of law won’t necessarily preserve freedom if the law under Chinese rule consists of draconian bills passed from an undemocratic legislature.  For Mr. Lee, this meant that in order to guarantee future freedoms, Hong Kong must have democracy.  Under British rule, freedoms for Hong Kong were protected by a democratically elected, and as Mr. Lee eloquently put it, they could “enjoy the fruits of democracy without a tree in Hong Kong.”

Mr. Lee believes that Hong Kong will lead China forward by setting an example of how a future China could look.  Mr. Lee told me that he had many discussions with the architect of the “one country, two systems” policy and he asked him why it would be in place for 50 years.  To this, Mr. Xiaoping (the architect) replied that he thought it would take at least 50 years for China to catch up with Hong Kong, and if 50 years wasn’t enough, they would maintain the SARs system for another 50 years as to not drag Hong Kong backwards.  Although in theory, Hong Kong is the “master of its own house,” in practice Mr. Lee told me that the Hong Kong government does consult with Beijing under the table, interfering in the internal politics of Hong Kong.  Mr. Lee feels the judiciary is still autonomous, but the legislature and executive are largely controlled by Beijing.

The idea of “Asian values” has come up in many of my discussions with people throughout the Asian countries I have visited, and Mr. Lee thinks that this idea only provides a convenient excuse for abuses of people.  Mr. Lee has a very human rights focused opinion of freedom, meaning that to him, there are basic freedoms that human beings should have regardless of your cultural heritage.  If you put people in prison, all yearn to be free.  If you break their arms, they will cry out in pain.  If you put a bullet in their heads, all will die.  Mr. Lee defines freedom as “free choice subject to reasonable constraints without infringing upon other people’s freedoms.”  Freedom should be considered a right that is not limited to the idea of individual freedom.  Mr. Lee believes that we should protect everyone’s freedom, even those thousands of miles away.  Sooner or later the restriction of freedoms on others will come back to you.  I think that this point was most profoundly demonstrated to me during my time in Thailand working on the Burma issue.   It is easy to forget about those who do not have freedom when we become comfortable with out own, but when this happens we become more susceptible to losing that freedom.  Mr. Lee is a firm believer that spreading democracy and freedom to the far corners of the world makes the world a better and more peaceful place.  I doubt that any of us will ever see a world that is completely free or peaceful, but we can all help move us one step closer to that goal if we begin to see our individual freedoms as intimately tied to the freedoms of those everywhere in the world.