‘Don’t miss the boat’: Xi warns Hong Kong of lost opportunities with Cantonese phrase

Chinese president says the city at 20 has grown exuberant like a tree, and he recalls its first phase of colonial rule as ‘humiliating’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 6:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 2017, 12:51am

Chinese President Xi Jinping struck a solemn tone in his final speech before leaving Hong Kong on Saturday, except for one moment when he slipped in a colloquial Cantonese phrase.

“As a saying in Hong Kong goes: ‘After leaving Suzhou, one will find it hard to get a boat ride’,” Xi told a 2,000-strong crowd after leading the inauguration of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as the city’s new leader at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.

His reference to the ancient canal town near Shanghai, where people relied on boats rather than other forms of transport to conduct business, drew scattered laughter in the hall.

Xi Jinping: challenging Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong crosses a ‘red line’

Xi smiled and continued: “This means an opportunity missed is an opportunity lost. It is important to cherish the opportunity, seize it and focus your energy on Hong Kong’s development.”

Xi also likened Hong Kong – 20 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty – to “a man entering adulthood at the age of 20” according to Chinese tradition. Citing an ancient poem, he said the city had “grown exuberant like a bamboo or a pine tree”.

He also invoked the metaphor of a tree to express the role of the “one country, two systems” formula, stressing the anchoring role of the state. “‘One country’ is like the roots of a tree. For a tree to grow tall and luxuriant, its roots must run deep and strong,” he said.

The Cantonese phrase on missing out on opportunities was a light moment in a sombre speech lasting 45 minutes, in which Xi warned of an untouchable “red line” against infiltration and sabotage in the city.

He declared that the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, was only “basic legislation enacted in accordance with the [national] constitution”, and that Beijing had a say in how to improve its implementation.

The speech also contrasted with the gentler tone Xi struck on Friday, when he expressed appreciation of Hongkongers’ contribution to the country’s development and cited a 1980s song by local pop singer Alan Tam Wing-lun to encourage people to believe in themselves.

That page of Chinese history was one of humiliation and sorrow
Xi Jinping on the loss of Hong Kong to British forces

To underscore the importance of sovereignty, Xi on Saturday looked back on the first chapter of Hong Kong’s colonial history, which he described as “humiliating”.

At the start of his speech, he recounted how “a weak China under corrupt and incompetent feudal rule” lost Hong Kong to Britain after its defeat in the Opium War.

“In the early 1840s, Britain sent an expeditionary force of a mere 10,000 troops to invade China and got its way in forcing the Qing government, which had an 800,000-strong army, to pay reparations and cede the island of Hong Kong to it,” he said.

“That page of Chinese history was one of humiliation and sorrow. It was not until the Communist Party of China led the Chinese people to victory in a dauntless and tenacious struggle for national independence and liberation ... that the Chinese people truly stood up.”

In a subsequent meeting with Lam’s cabinet, Xi cited lines from The Art of War, a Song dynasty poem, and prose by a Qing official to urge the new administration to stay loyal to the country, avoid inertia and to be united.