More than paean to pluralism
If there was one theme that stood out during the visit by Vice-President Zeng Qinghong it was the appeal for harmony. In his 10-minute dinner speech, the Chinese leader used the words 'harmony' and 'harmonious' no less than seven times. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in his much shorter remarks, said the word 'harmony' four times.
True, aside from the very brief interruption by legislator and activist 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung, the evening passed without incident. One could say there was harmony in the air.
But was there? Clearly, the members of the democratic camp - while delighted to be included, for once, in such an event - were still disappointed that Mr Zeng took no notice of them. He did not shake hands with any of them or take note of the letter that they had presented to him, via the chief executive, asking for a reconsideration of the central government's decision to rule out universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008.
When Mr Zeng ended his visit on Monday, he bemoaned the fact that because of his tight schedule he had not been able to see more things and listen to more voices. But when asked if the voices he had failed to hear included those from the pro-democracy camp, he did not respond. Presumably, those were voices he did not hear because he did not want to hear them.
The chief executive tried to pour oil over troubled waters. Through his spokesman, Mr Tsang said Sunday's dinner, with politicians from different sectors and different backgrounds, was in itself a breakthrough and marked a good beginning for creating harmony.
Indeed, Mr Tsang, in his dinner remarks, had in effect gone so far as to call members of the democratic camp patriotic, something that central government officials have yet to do.
Referring to the presence of people from 'different sectors, backgrounds and political parties - indeed, people of different minds', the chief executive said that, despite their differences, he was sure that 'we are of one heart in our love for our country and Hong Kong'.
This implied that members of the Democratic Party and its allies also should be considered patriotic, even though only last year Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the party, had been denounced as being unpatriotic. But by assuming that people can all share love of China and Hong Kong despite their political differences, the chief executive had done a great service towards the promotion of social harmony.
Presumably, Mr Tsang's words were cleared by the vice-president in advance, which means that Beijing, to an extent, associates itself with those words. If so, that would indeed be a breakthrough.
Mr Tsang added: 'We can find harmony among our differences.' There is a subtle difference between that and Mr Zeng's advice in his speech to seek 'common ground while reserving differences'. According to Mr Tsang's formulation, harmony is found not by setting aside differences but actually exists amid the differences: a paean to diversity.
Noting that 'we cherish what we have because we know that none of it comes easily', he went further, calling on people with different political beliefs to 'overcome prejudices and stride forward in unison'.
That is easier said than done. But recognition of differences, without questioning each other's motives, is the first step that needs to be taken if we are all going to work together towards a common goal. Ultimately, acceptance of other people's values, traits - even prejudices - is what is necessary in the construction of a society that is truly harmonious.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator