Hong Kong’s sights and sounds already familiar to Xi from two decades of visits, friendship
Xi had been a frequent visitor to Hong Kong for two decades even while he was a lowly provincial cadre, according to two friends in the city who’d known and hosted him.
When Xi Jinping sets foot in Hong Kong on Thursday, the sights and sounds of the city will already be familiar to him, gleaned from his frequent visits over two decades while climbing up the ranks of China’s Communist Party power structure.
An inveterate explorer and seeker of information even before his promotion to China’s highest office, Xi was particularly keen to understand the intricate details of how Hong Kong’s political and civil service systems function within the sovereignty of China, said Sze Chi-ching, a city entrepreneur who had been a friend to Xi since 1985.
“As a government official, he had to understand how one country can work with two sets” of political, administrative, legal and market systems, Sze said. “He usually came and stayed for one or two days every time.”
Xi’s frequent visits to Hong Kong began during the 1990s when his late father Xi Zhongxun was spending his retirement in neighbouring Shenzhen. The senior Xi was in charge of affairs in Guangdong province during the 1970s, before being promoted to deputy chair of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
Xi was working as a county party secretary in Hebei when he was suddenly ordered to go to Xiamen in 1985 to replace deputy mayor An Li, the daughter-in-law of then party chief Hu Yaobang. An was forced to resign because her extravagant lifestyle and arrogance upset officials and residents.
Xi cut a very different figure to An. “He lived in a public dormitory, and washed his own clothes,”even when he was deputy mayor of Xiamen city,Sze said. “He had a humble personality and always remembered his friends.”
Xi would spend 17 years working in Fujian province, eventually rising to become governor of the province from 1999 to 2002. Already a rising political star, Xi was transferred in 2002 to neighbouring Zhejiang province as governor until 2007.
In 2007, he was elevated to the highest decision making body in the Communist Party, appointed vice president and anointed as the heir-apparent to then president Hu Jintao, finally rising to the top office of the land in 2012.
Xi’s long tenure in Fujian during the 1990s cemented his ties with businesspeople of the province, said Sze, who’s the honorary president of the Hong Kong-Fujian Chamber of Commerce.
The 78-year-old founder and chairman of Hang Tung Resources Holdings has also been the Hong Kong Affairs Adviser to the State Council and is a former delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the advisory body to the legislature.
Hong Kong officials treated Xi with courtesy and warmth, even when he was a provincial-level cadre, Sze said.
MTR Corp.’s chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang remembers Xi well. During a 2004 trade promotion trip to Hong Kong as commissar of Zhejiang, Xi asked to see the city’s night view.
A visit to The Peak was way too common, so Ma, then the Secretary for the Financial Services and the Treasury, arranged for a visit to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), including a meeting with the de facto central bank’s then chief executive Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, whose 88th floor office on the top of the IFC One tower offered the city’s best panoramic view.
“We had a nice chat and Mr Xi was interested to learn about Hong Kong’s financial market. He found the night view of Hong Kong very beautiful,” Ma said. “We had a tour for about 30 minutes, and he enjoyed it. Too bad those were the days before the smartphone, so we could not take a selfie.”
Sze hadn’t had much chance to meet his old friend since Xi became president. The last time the two met was during Sze’s 2013 visit to Beijing.
Sze’s second son Irons Sze is a member of Hong Kong’s CPPCC. During a 2011 visit to Beijing, Xi sent his regards. “I’m very grateful to him,” the elder Sze said of the president’s gesture.