Hopes and fears: Zhang Dejiang visits Hong Kong

The Zhang Dejiang speech Hong Kong had hoped to hear

Keane Shum imagines what the NPC chairman could have said during his landmark trip to the city to demonstrate that the central government had heeded – and understood – people’s concerns about the future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 12:00pm

Before boarding his plane at Chek Lap Kok, National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang (張德江) makes one final – and imagined – address to the people of Hong Kong. We can dream.

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(In Cantonese) Friends, countrymen, thank you for your hospitality.

(In Putonghua) Forgive me for my poor Cantonese. Cantonese is a national treasure of our Chinese heritage, but despite the many years I spent in Guangdong and, as you now know, my fondness for Hong Kong songs and films, I regret that I have never been able to master the varied tones and witty colloquialisms of Cantonese.

When I arrived three days ago, I said my objectives could be summarised in three words: seeing, listening, and speaking.

No doubt, I saw many things. I saw how Hong Kong’s vast public housing network gives millions a safe place to call home. I saw the ingenious innovations Hong Kong people have developed to help the disabled and elderly retain their dignity. From the window of my car and hotel room, I saw Hong Kong’s gleaming skyscrapers and, behind them, the lush hillsides, a combination of man-made and natural beauty without equal.

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But what I saw was not just all that is right in Hong Kong. At On Tat Estate, I saw how hard many Hongkongers struggle to secure a unit. Down the side streets of the thoroughfares my motorcade whisked past, I saw how meagrely some elderly people scrape by. Up the length of the city’s tallest skyscraper, I saw the light display counting down to 2047 and, strung across the hillsides, those yellow banners calling for true universal suffrage.

Hong Kong people are famous for speaking your mind, and Hong Kong and the nation are better for it

I saw what makes Hong Kong one of the great cities of the world, and also what makes it one of the most stressful. I saw why there is tension between rich and poor, between young and old, between the city and the nation, and all those sandwiched between.

And so I listened to what Hongkongers had to say about all that I saw. I listened to the chief executive explain the very real challenges he has encountered in trying to bring Hong Kong together. I listened to the ideas of establishment and opposition lawmakers alike on how to bridge these many divides. I listened to the voices of protesters, too, even though I did not have a chance to engage with them directly. But believe me, in this day and age, nothing goes unheard. I heeded your anxieties about the growing wealth gap, about the rule of law, and about the sustainability of “one country, two systems”.

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Which is why I spoke on a variety of subjects, from how all sectors of Hong Kong could benefit from the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, to how the rule of law is sacrosanct in Hong Kong, and how Hong Kong will continue to be governed by Hongkongers. Although we have not always communicated our intentions to the people of Hong Kong in the most tactful way, the central government continues to believe in protecting Hong Kong’s judicial and law enforcement autonomy and in ultimately electing the chief executive by universal suffrage.

All opinions should be heard so long as they are expressed in a peaceful manner

Some Hongkongers believe civic nomination and – for a small but vocal minority – even independence are the best way to achieve these goals; my colleagues in Beijing happen to disagree. But the debate is not over. As I have mentioned, “one country, two systems” is an unprecedented political arrangement; its implementation continues to evolve. As we have different opinions about the methods, let us continue to debate them on their merits, rather than on the characters of their proponents. All opinions should be heard so long as they are expressed in a respectful and peaceful manner. Hong Kong people are famous for speaking your mind, and Hong Kong and the nation are better for it.

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But since I was last here in 2004, and especially in recent years, criticism in Hong Kong – both the giving and receiving of it – seems to have become far more divisive, and derisive, than constructive. Facing criticism has of course had a long, fraught history in Chinese society, and I could not help but think this week of what happened to our country half a century ago. I am aware that one of my predecessors as NPC chairman was a key figure in the controversial stage play that triggered that decade-long chain of turbulent events. I am reminded of the play’s namesake, Hai Rui, who was sentenced to death 450 years ago for daring to speak the truth to the Ming emperor Jiajing. Hai Rui risked his life to save China from neglect. He was a patriot, as are all those who speak up in the hope of bettering Hong Kong and the nation.

Enough of the Lion Rock refrain – can Hong Kong and mainland China move on to actually setting aside their discord?

When I said that speaking was one of the objectives of my visit, I did not mean only that I would speak. I also meant that we should all be speaking to each other. We should all be willing to engage in constructive dialogue with anyone who has at heart the best interests of both Hong Kong and the nation. With an open mind and some fresh thinking, these need not be mutually exclusive.

Thank you for your patience. Not only these past few days, when I know my security detail inconvenienced your commutes, but more importantly over the long term. I know the young people of Hong Kong are concerned about what happens on July 1, 2047, and those of us who will not live to see that day are nevertheless obligated to bequeath to them the security of place and citizenship they deserve.

Thank you again for your hospitality. I promise to keep working on the best possible outcome for all Hongkongers, if you promise to keep seeing, listening, and speaking.

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong