Hong Kong politicians remember former Chinese vice-premier Qian Qichen as ‘low-key’ yet influential
Praise from across city’s political spectrum for statesman who blended skill, tact and charm
His name might not have dominated the headlines, but Qian Qichen, the former vice-premier who died aged 89 on Tuesday, was an influential figure in the transfer of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese sovereignty.
Colourful and sometimes controversial, Qian was a diplomat who displayed skill, tact, and, when required, charm – unexpected from a communist government that was not always comfortable on the world’s stage back then.
In Qian’s own words, his task was “rare and special” during China’s negotiations with the UK government in the 1980s involving paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
As foreign minister, Qian held rounds of meetings with his British counterparts, witnessing an atmosphere that went from friendly to increasingly hostile in the wake of the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square.
Amid Hongkongers’ crisis of confidence, Qian said British officials tried to persuade him to reconsider the decision to station People’s Liberation Army troops in the city as well as urging a faster pace of democratisation.
“After the political storm in Beijing in 1989 ... Britain seemed a bit regretful about the Sino-British Joint Declaration it had signed in December 1984,” Qian wrote in his memoir.
In 1995, a law dubbed “Qian’s seven rules” was passed to ensure stability in relation to Hong Kong and Taiwan, which has remained self-governing despite Beijing’s sovereignty claim over the island.
Also in 1995, he was appointed chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Three years later, he assumed the same role for Macau.
His death comes less than two months before the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover.
From across the city’s political spectrum, Qian’s death was described as a loss.
Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming said many Hongkongers thought Qian’s view on the “one country, two systems” policy had been “very consistent”. “He was so different from the many left-leaning leaders of our time,” he said.
Tam Yiu-chung, of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, remembered Qian as a “nice” leader who was “very willing to listen” when members met him before the handover.
“He was both pragmatic and serious about Hong Kong issues. He was widely respected,” he said.
Former Liberal Party chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, a lawmaker from 1985 to 2008, described Qian as a “low-key gentleman”. “He was not dramatic or rhetorical at all, and he was not blunt or critical in what he said,” she said.
After July 1, 1997, Qian went on to take charge of Hong Kong affairs. During the first few years after the handover, Beijing had adopted a “non-interference policy” and allowed the city’s government a free hand in handling its internal affairs.
Things changed sooner than some had expected, however, when Qian summoned Anson Chan Fang On-sang – then chief secretary and a popular civil servant promoted by the British before the handover – to “better support” Tung Chee-hwa, who was chief executive at the time.
Qian was one of the mainland leaders to receive the city’s top official during annual duty visits to Beijing. But his remarks sometimes sparked concerns about what critics saw as the central government’s intervention in Hong Kong politics.
Just more than halfway into Tung’s first term, Qian became the first central government official to endorse him for a second term. Tung ended up resigning three years into his second term.
Additional reporting by Tony Cheung