Anson Chan: Charting a Course Toward Democracy

Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
@ The Radcliffe Institute
February 26, 2013
By Lynne Weiss

Anson Chan, who delivered this year's Rama S. Mehta lecture at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, has much in common with the woman for whom this lectureship is named. Like Mehta, in whose honor John Kenneth Galbraith and Catherine Atwater Galbraith endowed the lectureship, Chan has had a distinguished career and an awareness of the problems of women in developing countries.

Further, as Radcliffe Institute Dean Lizabeth Cohen said in her introduction, Chan and Mehta both pursued careers in public service. At this point their stories diverge, however, for while Mehta had to resign her position after her marriage, Chan was able to retain hers. Even so, as a married woman in the early 1960s, Chan could serve only on a month-to-month contract at a salary 75 percent of that of men at the same level.

Image left to right: Dean Lizabeth Cohen, Anson Chan, President Drew Faust. By Tony RinaldoImage left to right: Dean Lizabeth Cohen, Anson Chan, President Drew Faust. By Tony Rinaldo

Yet in 1993, Chan became the first woman and first Chinese chief secretary of Hong Kong's civil service, a post previously held only by British men. She stepped down in 2001, but she is known today for her outspoken commitment to democracy, integrity in government, and equal rights for women. Introducing Chan, William Kirby, director of Harvard's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, said, "If you like the fact that Hong Kong has an honest judiciary, rule of law, and low corruption, you must thank Anson Chan."

Speaking warmly yet forcefully to a large and attentive audience in the Radcliffe Gymnasium, Chan noted that US–China relations are deepening. The second largest group of immigrants to the United States in 2010 were Chinese-born, and the number of Chinese students studying in the United States more than doubled in the ten years prior to the 2011–2012 academic year.

Chan acknowledged that geographically, Hong Kong is a tiny part of China. Yet its role, she said, is crucial to the US–China relationship. Hundreds of US companies have offices in Hong Kong, and the city, Chan hopes, can help chart a course for mainland China's evolution toward democracy.

As China grows in affluence and influence, it is important to protect Hong Kong's system rooted in rule of law, personal freedom, and clean government as a potential blueprint for change on the mainland. "It is my earnest hope," Chan concluded, that China will "aspire to greatness" not just in economic and military power, but "in how its leaders treat their own people."

Lynne Weiss is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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