City Beat

Ties that bind: despite the tensions, Hong Kong’s reaction to national disasters shows blood is thicker than water

Eight years on from the Sichuan earthquake, chief secretary Carrie Lam experienced at first hand the gratitude people feel for the city’s donations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 7:14pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 7:13pm

“Thank you, Hong Kong. We’re so grateful for your generous donations, which have changed our lives completely. We’ll never forget your help during our most difficult time.”

“It was so unimaginable when I was told that people and donations from Hong Kong would help us to rebuild our homes eight years ago. To me, it was a place so far away and unfamiliar, but your love has drawn us together.”

“Aunties and uncles, I promise you I’ll study hard in this beautiful school, and become someone useful to the country. That’s what I believe is the best way to show my heartfelt gratitude for your generosity.”

This was the kind of feedback I heard, from the mouths of little children and villagers to the speeches of officials, when I visited Sichuan province last week as one of the media representatives accompanying a delegation of 80 people headed by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

There should be no doubt about Hongkongers’ willingness to extend a helping hand, whether it’s now or in the future

The mission was to conclude Hong Kong’s support for reconstruction work after Sichuan was devastated by a magnitude-8 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people in May 2008.

For so many local people, especially those living in mountainous areas of the province, the wounds may or may not have healed today, but one thing is for sure: they have benefited from the various reconstruction projects funded by Hong Kong, and are grateful to a city that would otherwise be too far away and out of touch to make a connection.

Lam, who is used to being swamped with work back home, found herself flooded with gratitude wherever she went during her three days in Sichuan to wind up the 150 projects worth more than HK$9 billion funded by Hong Kong. They include the reconstruction of schools, hospitals, roads, and, most significantly, the national Wolong Panda Park which was seriously damaged during the quake.

Lam was rewarded with one pleasant surprise: the park will be free for all Hongkongers when it opens. Beyond the waiver of the 90 yuan entry fee, it’s a loud and clear message from Wolong’s government and 5,000 residents that Hong Kong’s timely and generous help will not be forgotten.

Lam was apparently touched, telling reporters that she hoped, through the past eight years of efforts by her government colleagues and many Hong Kong volunteers on these projects, relations between Hongkongers and their mainland compatriots could develop in a positive way, easing the current tensions between the two sides.

But some of the delegation members privately joked that Lam should thank God the government’s request for the huge amount of funding for Sichuan was put before the Legislative Council eight years ago instead of today. Otherwise, God only knows how many filibusters and adjourned meetings she would have had to face before lawmakers approved the spending.

Still, I’m someone who tends to see things from a positive perspective. History tells us that whenever China has been hit by a natural disaster, the deep-rooted feeling of “blood is thicker than water” has always prevailed. There should be no doubt about Hongkongers’ willingness to extend a helping hand, whether it’s now or in the future, though our lawmakers are becoming much more critical and radical because of the deep political divide.

It reminds me of the huge amount of donations back in 1991, when 18 provinces in eastern China were disastrously flooded. Unofficial figures showed Hong Kong, as a single city, topped the world’s contributions in disaster relief aid, donating more than HK$600 million. Keep in mind that was 25 years ago.

It was this sense of “blood relationship” that touched top Beijing officials, who at the time kept criticising Hong Kong as a “subversive base” due to the city’s massive and continuous support for the student-led democratic movement in Tiananmen in 1989. That “subversive” charge was no longer mentioned by Beijing after the outpouring of support for the flood victims.

It’s an undeniable fact that 19 years after the handover, in many ways, some Hongkongers and mainlanders dislike each other out of cultural, ideological and other differences, It may have led to growing animosity, but nothing should change the “blood ties” binding us, and learning to be grateful is the basic foundation.