How our leaders missed a golden opportunity to support Hong Kong

Zuraidah Ibrahim says the World Cup qualifier between China and Hong Kong presented our top officials with the perfect chance to show their passion for the city, without offending Beijing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 November, 2015, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 November, 2015, 12:02pm

In the United States, candidates for national office wear their sporting loyalties on their sleeves – and on their heads. Donning a cap advertising their favourite team is such a standard photo op, it is almost a cliché.

Barack Obama may be president of the union of 50 states, with an official residence in the neutral ground of the District of Columbia, but he has never been shy of his Chicago roots when it comes to baseball. He is a Chicago White Sox fan. And when arch rivals the Chicago Cubs had a chance to make it to the World Series, he didn’t hesitate to support them. “Congrats @Cubs – even @whitesox fans are rooting for you!” he tweeted.

The current pretenders in the presidential primaries are continuing this old tradition, flaunting their love for their hometown sports teams even as they traverse the country trying to persuade voters from Connecticut to California that they care passionately about each and every one of them.

As for those vying for state or city office, supporting the local team is a job requirement. George W. Bush did one better. As a potential Texas governor, he bought a share in the Texas Rangers, gaining him not just street cred but also a tidy bonus when the club was later sold.

These politicians all know how sports can be a useful arena to show their more human side.

What has all this got to do with Hong Kong? A lot, if the events of the past week are any indication. The World Cup soccer qualifying match between Hong Kong and China, coming in the wake of tensions between the city and the mainland, was the talk of the town.

To avoid any ugly incidents, fans were physically separated. Hongkongers had to produce their IDs to get in. Mainlander numbers were kept to 500.

Ignoring warnings, Hong Kong fans booed the national anthem, The March of the Volunteers. On the bright side, the negativity was said to be more restrained than at previous games.

The home fans were overjoyed when the final score was 0-0. The next day, there was a run on Hong Kong jerseys.

On the whole, it was a feel-good event for the average Hongkonger. Politically and economically, there is no question of Hong Kong dealing with Beijing on a level playing field. But on the soccer pitch, the local boys showed they could still give residents something to cheer about. A couple of contacts with affiliations to the mainland told me they felt proud of the men in red.

But how did the local politicians react? Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was coy, saying he was “impressed by the excellent performance of the Hong Kong team and national team players”.

John Tsang Chun-wah, his finance secretary and apparent rival, posted a picture of himself watching the match, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything more than “exciting match!” Well, there was that effusive exclamation mark.

By comparison, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor appeared positively ebullient before the game, saying she hoped the Hong Kong team would “play a wonderful game” – only to dial down the enthusiasm immediately by confessing she was not a football fan and would be too busy to watch the match.

Granted, the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland is complicated. There is nothing else like it in the world. And it is prudent of Hong Kong’s leaders to manage carefully the toxic anti-China sentiments that threaten to bubble over every now and then.

But that is exactly why they should have done better. The match was a chance for leaders to showcase how people here can strike a healthy balance between their Hong Kong and Chinese identities – that you don’t have to be jingoistic or xenophobic to be passionate about Hong Kong. Instead, the signal they gave was that Hong Kong loyalties have to be suppressed ostensibly for the larger good of China.

The best political leaders know that their identity – like that of their people – is never an either/or choice. They show nous in picking the right one for the right occasion

The irony is that Beijing probably would not have taken offence if they had openly rooted for the Hong Kong boys. Nobody could accuse the chief executive of being anti-China on substantial matters. He could have surely afforded to show more pride in his home team in a largely symbolic soccer match.

Such moments in a polarised society don't come along often. Campaigns like “Appreciate Hong Kong” are one way, but being manufactured from the top, they lack the authenticity that fandom provides.

One thinks back to Nelson Mandela and his deft use of sporting and cultural symbolism. When he became the leader of post-apartheid South Africa, one of the most divided societies in the world, he embraced the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an opportunity to build unity.

It was a sport that the black population associated with white nationalism, but he showed he was not going to bear a grudge. At the same time, he flaunted his love for his own African and Xhosa culture, in his dress, diction and dance.

The best political leaders know that their identity – like that of their people – is never an either/or choice. They show nous in picking the right one for the right occasion.

Hong Kong is hungry for moments to just be itself even as it adjusts to the inevitability of China’s embrace. Win-win chances are hard to come by. Politically speaking, last Tuesday in Mong Kok Stadium, there was an open goal that Hong Kong’s leaders missed.

Zuraidah Ibrahim is chief news editor. Follow her on Twitter: @zuibrahim