Li Keqiang

Common touch

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2011, 12:00am


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The Hong Kong government, in its eagerness to please Beijing by providing over-the-top security for Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, has shot itself in the foot and, in the process, may well have shot the Politburo Standing Committee member's foot as well.

The vice-premier evidently wanted to present himself as a man of the people. He visited a home for the elderly and toured a public housing estate. Li attempted to reach out not only to the grass roots but to the community at large. At the University of Hong Kong, he delivered part of his speech in English - a highly unusual gesture by a Chinese leader.

But such efforts to garner soft power were totally undone by the overwhelming security blanket thrown over him, which ensured not only the Chinese leader's safety but also that he was not exposed to direct contact with the public.

It is understandable that the government wouldn't want to expose a state leader to the rough and tumble of Hong Kong politics, in which the chief executive himself could be shoved in the chest hard enough to necessitate a hospital visit. Li saw and heard no protesters during his three days here.

Li's trip took place at about the same time as the visit to China by US Vice-President Joe Biden - but there the similarity ends. The American official won instant popularity by eating noodles with his family at a modest restaurant that specialises in pig-intestine soup. The novelty of Biden's behaviour certainly attracted the Chinese people - that, and his lack of officiousness and his outgoing personality.

Chinese people have also taken to the newly arrived American ambassador, Gary Locke, who was photographed in a Seattle airport Starbucks trying to pay for his coffee with a voucher and carrying his own backpack. Similarly, US President Barack Obama caused a sensation when he arrived in Beijing in 2009 and carried his own umbrella in the rain.

The behaviour of these American officials attracts comment and admiration because it is in such contrast with the style of their counterparts in China, where aides are expected to carry their bags, get their coffee and hold an umbrella over them in the rain - that is, if they ever have to walk in the rain.

And, whereas US officials are normally accessible to the press, Chinese officials are not. Certainly, Li's visit to Hong Kong was marked by severe media constraints. While the vice-premier took part in at least 22 events, reporters were allowed to cover only 10 of them, despite Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen's assertion that 'every single activity of the vice-premier has been covered by the media'.

It isn't clear whether Li was aware he was in a cocoon the entire time, or if this was entirely the work of Hong Kong officials. Indeed, it is likely that mainland officials pressed for it.

Hong Kong officials should let their mainland counterparts know that, during such visits, it would be in Beijing's interest to allow protests to be held and to allow access by the media. That would be a manifestation of 'one country, two systems' in practice. And Chinese leaders may even score some points with their own people as a result.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1