In Hong Kong, food and politics don't mix - yet

Stephen Vines says deals are sealed only if rivals are open to compromise

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 July, 2013, 3:17am

Rarely has a meal at the Legislative Council caused so much fuss. But, understandably, the invitation to lunch for Zhang Xiaoming , the director of the central government's liaison office, prompted a torrent of comment mainly because, in Hong Kong's weird political system, the people who pull the strings rarely meet their critics.

Consequently, a great deal of hope has been invested in the very idea that a leading mainland official has actually been in the same room as members of the democratic camp and eaten with them.

We shall see how this pans out. However, it provides a useful opportunity to reflect more widely on the connection between meals and politics.

The theory goes that a lot more can be accomplished when protagonists gather in a less formal setting, allowing their dialogue to be eased by good food and wine. In my other life as a purveyor of food in restaurants, I commend this idea.

However, the record of food and politics is mixed. In the US, President Barack Obama makes all sorts of efforts to get intransigent Republican legislators to ease their opposition to legislation initiated by the White House. In March, he went so far as to invite some for dinner in Washington's Plume restaurant and paid for it out of his own pocket. It is hard to say whether this was much of a success, although there has been some easing of intransigence.

A far more successful meal was hosted in 1790 by his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, who invited Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to a famous meal that resulted in the compromise that was largely responsible for the union that is today's United States of America.

A rather less edifying but, arguably, also successful meal was the famous gangsters' summit in Atlantic City held during the prohibition period over a lavish meal. At this dinner, the mobsters agreed to divide up territories and produced a truce, halting a long period of gang warfare.

In Hong Kong, the limitation of real dialogue os heading in a dangerous direction

Chinese imperial dynasties have also used dining as an expression of power. The tradition of imperial dining began with the Zhou dynasty nearly 3,000 years ago and prevailed until the 20th century. Post-imperial Communist leaders became equally interested in the use of banquets to seal and close deals. The famous Mao-Nixon dinner sticks in the mind as a prime example.

The Roman empire was also an avid provider of banquets that were used to impress the people of Rome.

Sometimes, the less formal works better. It is often said, for example, that Anglo-American relations at a popular level were given an enormous boost in 1939 when president Franklin D. Roosevelt invited the British royal family for a picnic at his Hyde Park retreat in New York and King George VI discovered the hot dog, famously asking for more. It wasn't enough to get the US into the second world war before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but some of the goodwill paid dividends.

The key point here, and it applies across the board from gangsters to royalty, is that meals only work as political tools when there is an underlying willingness to make deals and relations work.

In Hong Kong, the increasing polarisation of society and the damaging limitation of real dialogue between opponents is heading in a dangerous direction. The Legco lunchtime meeting, initiated by the body's president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, is clearly a move in the right direction.

The chief executive is following it up with a dinner to discuss constitutional reform. However, he also seems to be using this occasion to employ the old divide-and-rule tactic by only inviting "moderate" democrats. Leung Chun-ying clearly likes his meals served tepid.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur