The renowned Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, held for 80 days without charge, was finally released under conditions that among other things forbid him to talk to the media. Ai has apologized to reporters, explaining that he is not allowed to talk about his case and, in fact, “I can’t say anything.”

But he went out of his way to pay tribute to Hong Kong, whose people had come out in great numbers to show their support for him after he was detained in April.

Ai risked official retribution by voicing respect and gratitude for people in Hong Kong, saying he was very moved by their actions.

“Hong Kong is a very rational society,” he said, “a society with a social conscience. It wasn’t just for me, but for what they believe in.”

“I was aware that many people in Hong Kong have appealed for and supported my release,” he said. “I’m very touched by that. We Chinese should head toward being more open and reasonable, which is the indicator of an advanced society. Hong Kong is the model of being open and reasonable.”

Thus, 14 years after it came again under Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong continues to play a unique role within China.

During the century and a half that it was a British colony, Hong Kong offered refuge to political dissidents from the mainland. Thus, after the Empress Dowager crushed the 1898 reforms supported by the Guangxu Emperor, the British colony offered refuge to the political thinker Kang Youwei, who had a price on his head.

This role of providing refuge continued in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when many student leaders were able to flee overseas by first escaping to Hong Kong.

More recently, after Zhao Lianhai, an activist who fought for the rights of children sickened by tainted milk powder, was sentenced to 2? years in prison for “disturbing social order,” protesters in Hong Kong demanded his release.

Even pro-Beijing individuals, such as deputies to the National People’s Congress and members of the advisory body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, wrote to the Chinese government in protest. Zhao was eventually granted medical parole.

The milk activist acknowledged the territory’s role after he was granted medical parole in December by writing on the internet: “Hong Kong has not fallen yet, that’s where our hope lies.”

There were also demonstrations in Hong Kong after the arrest and sentencing of Liu Xiaobo, the recipient of last year’s Nobel peace prize. Although Liu remains in prison, the protests show that many in Hong Kong support his aspirations for democracy and human rights, which were contained in the Charter 08 manifesto, which he helped to draft.

After Ai’s arrest in April, spontaneous protests by groups and individuals in Hong Kong arose. Some protesters spray-painted stencil drawings of the artist on sidewalks and footbridge walls, prompting a police investigation into suspected criminal damage.

Ai’s remarks on the values and beliefs of Hong Kong people are reminiscent of words spoken many years ago by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, who attended secondary school in Hong Kong and then went on to study medicine in the British colony.

Sun, in a speech at the University of Hong Kong in February 1923, explained where his revolutionary views had come from. “I got my ideas in this very place,” he said, “in the colony of Hong Kong.”

“I began to wonder,” he explained, “how it was that foreigners, that Englishmen could do such things as they had done, for example, with the barren rock of Hong Kong, within 70 or 80 years, while China in 4,000 years had no places like Hong Kong.”

More than half a century later, another Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, also expressed such admiration for the British colony that that he wanted to see many Hong Kongs emerge within China.

But of course this was not possible. Hong Kong is built on its values and, unless values change, new Hong Kongs cannot emerge on the mainland, except in the most superficial manner.

Today, it is important that Hong Kong remain true to itself, to its values, its beliefs and, yes, its social conscience.

This is what makes Hong Kong different from other Chinese cities. And this is what makes Hong Kong of value to China — as a model of openness and rationality, as Ai has properly pointed out.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer. Email: Frank.ching@gmail.com

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