As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Hong Kong politician Emily Lau. She is one of two vice-chairmen of the Hong Kong Democratic Party and is a full-time member of the Legislative Council from the geographical constituency of New Territories East.
DEVIN STEWART: What do you find unique or distinct about the age we're living in today?
EMILY LAU: Well what I find unique—I am not even sure whether it is unique or distinct but it's very disturbing—is the level of hatred and mistrust and also the inequality between the haves and the have-nots and the rich and the poor. And that has poisoned the atmosphere. For those who are being suppressed, they would go so far as to sacrifice their own lives to try to get even or to maim and kill the other side. I find this trend, this phenomenon exceedingly disturbing. And I don't see any end in sight.
DEVIN STEWART: What do you see as causing this situation?
EMILY LAU: I think it's the inequality, the distribution of resources and riches. Some people get excessive access to resources whereas a big, big majority get denied. Then those who have such access, they are economically and militarily and politically exceedingly powerful. So those being oppressed feel bitterly hopeless. And some just go berserk. For those of us watching that, we are not bystanders. We also live in the global village and we feel exceedingly exasperated and feel very, very concerned.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you see things getting better or worse today?
EMILY LAU: I don't think things are getting better in many places. Because to me the solution is to arm the people with democratic government so they can have a say in choosing who's going to run their place. Their government will negotiate and will talk to the other powers and the big corporations to try to get more equal and fair treatment. But of course I don't see things developing like that. And even in the countries of the suppressed many of them are run by dictators.
So I feel very, very distraught and I think that things are going to get worse before they get better.
DEVIN STEWART: And which countries are you thinking about specifically?
EMILY LAU: Well I think the countries in the Middle East. That's a real powder keg because there are so many inequalities there, discrimination and hatred and people whose right to self determination has been repeatedly denied.
Also the people who want to have democratic government have also been frustrated. As I look closer to home, in Asia, the rise of China, of course, is causing alarm. It seems America and its allies want to encircle or blockade China.
China of course is very concerned and there is tension with Japan, with Korea, with the Philippines. So it seems many places in different continents things are sort of on the boil and I'm not optimistic.
DEVIN STEWART: What does moral leadership mean to you?
EMILY LAU: It means that the leaders can take decisions that have a longer vision, a broader vision and are not just being held hostage to short term interests. Of course they have to look after the interests of their people. But if we have a leader that's morally strong and responsible, the leader should be able to explain to his or her people that certain decisions may not benefit them or maybe the people may have to take sacrifices for the well-being of people in other places.
But in these very trying times it's very difficult to find political leaders with such strong moral character. And of course the people sometimes may not want their leader to be that morally strong.
DEVIN STEWART: Why is that?
EMILY LAU: The people also want to look after their own interests. So when they look to their leaders and if the leaders seem to be doing something that is helping somebody in another country or in another continent at their expense, the people may find it very unacceptable.
But I think it's also up to the leaders, the leadership to explain to the people the broader vision and the long-term interest of humankind.
DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project is to articulate a global ethic among scholars. Do you ever think about this, this concept of a global ethic? And if so what does it mean to you?
EMILY LAU: Well I think that if more governments, more institutions whether social, political, or economic, talk about universal core values and not so that we are not all just driven to make more money, to increase the GDP and so on, I think that would be in the right direction.
Something that is for the future generations so people should stop being just focused on the short term and on immediate interests. If we talk more about democracy, human rights, the rule of law, how to eradicate discrimination and how to bring about more equality so that particularly people living in very, very awful circumstances can look forward to some better environment and to be able to have a fairer share of these scarce resources.
DEVIN STEWART: And you find those values to be universal?
EMILY LAU: I think they should be. If you look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if you look at the various international human rights covenants, which of course many countries have signed and ratified and they periodically go to the UN, the various committees there, to submit their report on how they implement those covenants.
The leaders pay lip service but then they do something else. That's why I find that very hypocritical and duplicitous.
DEVIN STEWART: What idea or issue concerns you the most?
EMILY LAU: I think it's the disparity between the rich and the poor. I know resources are limited but some people seem to have so much and many seem to have little or none at all. It is so wrong I think and it seems—I'm not saying nothing's being done, but very little is being done.
And when there are atrocities, whether it is in Africa or elsewhere, many rich people in countries seem to just turn a blind eye.
DEVIN STEWART: And what is the biggest ethical challenge of the day facing the planet?
EMILY LAU: It's how to eradicate that disparity, how to bring about better a livelihood for more people and how to lessen the hatred and the animosity because I guess they all revolve around the thing that they feel they have been treated so unfairly and they have been denied so many things. These people are acting very angry and they resort to violence, all forms of behavior which I do not condone. But I guess if we put ourselves in their circumstances maybe we would also do these very, very extreme things.
DEVIN STEWART: If people in governments don't respond what would be the outcome? What are the consequences?
EMILY LAU: I think more people will be driven to take the law into their own hands and to resort to violence, to mass murder, terrorism and all that. I of course am not trying to defend that. But I guess sometimes if people resort to that sort of behavior, in some cases I guess there are very, very powerful reasons behind it. And if we look at the plight of those people then I think we should all sit up and think that there must be some other way of conducting business.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you make a prediction for the future or describe a brighter future and how we might get there?
EMILY LAU: Well I don't have a crystal ball and I am not as some people have described me, unremittingly pessimistic. But I just don't see too much light at the end of the tunnel.
I don't want to see carnage and more murder and massacres. But I just hope that the world leaders will really sit down and think about the circumstances of those people who have been suffering for many, many years. And why can't we all try to sort it out and give them something better to look forward to?
DEVIN STEWART: Is there something structural that is preventing us from addressing these problems?
EMILY LAU: I don't know. I guess we're not going to see big changes coming so we have to use whatever structure is in place now to try to tackle the problem. This goes back to the point of moral leadership, not just emanating from political leaders but also from international organizations and other institutions which should come out and try to raise awareness about this—all of these problems.
I understand that many countries are now beset with their own economic difficulties. And given such trying times, I don't think they will want to focus on something like that.
So that's why I want to congratulate the Carnegie Council for talking about this issue at a time that maybe too many people just couldn't be bothered.
DEVIN STEWART: I really appreciate that, Emily Lau. Thank you. Who is ultimately accountable for the problems that you have talked about?
EMILY LAU: We should all be accountable. We cannot just push it to somebody else. We all live on this planet and we have a duty. We are global citizens. We all have a duty to try to sort things out. But of course people who have big powers, whether it is military and political or economic, they have a big responsibility. But it's up to the people to try to influence their leaders.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you think world peace is possible?
EMILY LAU: I think so if we all try. And your Council is doing good work. I hate to turn to this humankind and say no, you are doomed, there is no way out. I think we have to find a solution.
DEVIN STEWART: Emily Lau, thank you again so much for participating in the project.
EMILY LAU: Okay, good. Thank you very much.