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Hopes and fears: Zhang Dejiang visits Hong Kong

Enough of the Lion Rock refrain – can Hong Kong and mainland China move on to actually setting aside their discord?

Alice Wu says for over a decade, visiting state leaders have reached for references to Hong Kong’s unofficial anthem to establish rapport, yet the calls to ‘set aside discord’ have remained merely calls

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 1:30pm

I love the 1979 song Below the Lion Rock as much as, if not more than, the next person, but I’ll be damned if I want to hear it recited again. It was heartwarming, back in the day – in the spring of 2002 – when then financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung closed his budget with that song. It was very cool when then premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) did it later that year. Using what has become Hong Kong’s unofficial anthem to communicate with the people struck all the right chords.

But, more than a decade later, we’re still stuck in this nostalgia of a bygone era. Occupy Central protesters sang the song to evoke the same “Hong Kong spirit” that director of the central government’s liaison office, Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), called for after the failed constitutional reform package vote last year. Zhang Dejiang (張德江 ) did it again last week, calling on us to “set aside our discord, pursue our goals together in pursuit of our dreams”.

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On Zhang’s last morning in Hong Kong, he talked about us being “all in the same boat”. Make no mistake, the “same boat” metaphor is found in the song’s lyrics, too, right before the bit on setting aside our discord and living, together, happily ever after. And the reason Kowloon East seems to be the preferred destination for touring state leaders – then vice-premier Li Keqiang (李克強) and then president Hu Jintao ( 胡錦濤 ) both made the pilgrimage in 2011 and 2012, respectively – is that it is below the Lion Rock. They were meeting people Below the Lion Rock, just as the lyrics instructed.

All this symbolism resonates with a message Zhang was clearly on a mission to convey – that Hong Kong will not lose its identity. To the surprise of many, including mainland sources and veteran China watchers on this rock, Zhang spoke extensively about independence. He did so by sanctifying localism from secession. That message, too, is clear: your Lion Rock is great, but the rock is ours.

State leader’s ‘soft’ take on localism during Hong Kong visit surprises analysts

As chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, and also known as the “iron-fist enforcer”, Zhang tried to set the right conciliatory tone right off the bat, on the tarmac when he arrived. It was dramatically different from the August 31, 2014 white paper on “one country, two systems” that the NPC put forward under Zhang’s chairmanship. His meeting with the four pan-democrats should be viewed as nothing short of miraculous – an example of “setting aside discord”, even if momentarily.

This is the sort of stuff that would make Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) proud. Back in 1978, Deng, as vice-premier, held talks with then Japanese prime minister Takeo Fukuda to move Sino-Japanese relations forward precisely by “setting aside disputes and pursuing joint development”.

But let us not forget that this kind of gesture is an overture for the show to come. The problem with replaying Below the Lion Rock over and over again for more than a decade should be obvious. We’ve been stuck playing the same old tune, while our politics has become increasingly tired, and out of tune with the tempo of our time. We’re only nostalgic out of desperation. It’s time to get out from underneath the Lion Rock and move forward.

Just ask the MTR Corporation. To complete the Sha Tin to Central Link, its engineers have to drill and blast through fault lines below the Lion Rock. There are inherent dangers and conditions for digging underneath the Lion Rock. It’s good to hear from Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit that Zhang seemed to have agreed that there should be more such meetings in the future. Now, that’s moving forward.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA