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"China Has Changed So Much"
A Hong Kong democracy activist tells of his first trip to the mainland in 11 years

June 6, 2000
Web posted at 2:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 2:00 a.m. EDT

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Chinese authorities recently allowed Lau Chin-shek, a unionist legislator and democracy activist to visit his 93 year-old mother in Guangzhou, ending a 11-year ban on visiting the mainland. Lau was the first leader of Hong Kong's opposition parties black- listed by Beijing to be allowed to visit China. During the June 4 candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park, Lau talked to TIME Asia Hong Kong reporter Isabella Ng about his visit and about democracy and freedom in Hong Kong and China.

TIME: How did you feel when you learnt that you could go and see your mother?
I was so excited. I haven't seen her for 11 years. The last time I saw her was 1989 April; after that I have not been able to go back. I could not believe my luck.

TIME: Did you apply for permission before?
Not formally, but I have asked about the chances of betting permission - and I got no reply. I wanted to make sure that, when I applied, I would get approval.

TIME: What were your impression of China after 11 years?
The change is tremendous. Guangzhou has developed so fast. And people seem more relaxed and open than before, which is a good change. The most unforgettable thing was that when I went out, people would come and shake my hand, take pictures with me and ask me how I was doing. A lot of people know me there, whether as friends or as supporters of what I do. They are now willing to show their care and concern. This is postive. I'm sure that, in the past, people wouldn't even dare to look at me, let alone take pictures and say Hello.

TIME: Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa recently commented about your case, saying: "To those who can't go, I suggest they recognize the recent achievements of China in an objective way". How do you see that?
It's hard to be objective when you are not allowed to vist and see the place yourself, right? It's only through observation and experience that you can give an objective opinion on something. Right now, all we democracy activists get is second-hand information. Tung needs to allow more people [activists] to go to China and see the changes themselves. Now I'm back, I can say there are lots of changes -- and some of them are really good.

TIME: What disappointed you on this trip?
The development of democracy isn't keeping up with economic change and the change in people's views. This is something that I am really concerned about. But I can't say too much because my visit wasn't long enough to arrive at any firm conclusions.

TIME: What's holding democracy back?
Well, obviously, autocracy. And one-party rule. And press censorship.

TIME: Are Hong Kong people losing their interest in commemorating the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre?
I don't think their interest is dying. It's natural to have fewer and fewer people joining an event which commerorates something happened 11 years ago. In fact, the turn out this time -- 45,000 -- is pretty satisfactory. But of course, things are not going very well in Hong Kong, in terms of freedom and democracy.

TIME: Why not?
With such a lame-duck, limited electoral system, how can you teach people what democracy is? The first step would be an open election for the Chief Executive.

TIME: Willl you be applying for a second visit to China -- and do you think you will be allowed to return?

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