City Beat

Death of envoy gives Hong Kong cause to reflect on his handover role

Wu Jianmin may have appeared dovish, but he was also tough on the issues that mattered most

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2016, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 1:15am

It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that the death of a long-retired Chinese diplomat has made the whole nation reflect on how to make good use of China’s soft power.

The death of Wu Jianmin made headlines in leading newspapers, including here in Hong Kong, not to mention the outpouring of condolences on mainland social media platforms. It was something meaningful to Hong Kong as well.

Wu, 77, one of China’s most influential career diplomats, retired more than 10 years ago. The former ambassador to France, and to the United Nations in Geneva, died in a car crash while on his way to give a lecture at Wuhan University in the capital city of Hubei province a week ago.

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The tragic accident shocked the nation. Many remembered him as the country’s leading dovish diplomat, thanks to his well-known debates with a senior military general who took a hard line on the South China Sea issue, and with the chief editor of the radical, nationalistic tabloid Global Times.

One article that went viral online spoke volumes as to why he was so sorely missed: “After Wu, who else can debate with the populists?”

Wu, known for his gentlemanly style, was no stranger to Hong Kong journalists either. As the foreign ministry spokesman during the early 1990s, he was pursued by local reporters with all sorts of questions concerning the city’s handover.

It all came down to the delicate Hong Kong factor in China’s diplomacy before and after 1997.

When Beijing and London started to negotiate the future of Hong Kong from the early ‘80s, it was surely a diplomatic issue.

Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping set out his famous “no three-legged stool” principle so as to prevent the British from playing the Hong Kong public sentiment card.

That ensured all talks on Hong Kong’s post-1997 future were held between Britain and China, leaving the British-Hong Kong government with no official role to play.

Since 1997, Beijing has seen Hong Kong as a domestic issue that no foreign government or force should interfere with, though Britain keeps stressing its moral responsibilities towards its former colony as signatory of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

As local reporters covering the transition, we naturally targeted Wu as a very important source for Beijing’s official line of thinking during the ‘90s.

As gently as always, he impressed us with his polite manners and soft voice. But he was no pushover when it came to sticking to Beijing’s stance, especially on the controversial political reform package bulldozed through by last governor Chris Patten, which was attacked at the time.

Hong Kong may have been just a tiny chapter in Wu’s five-decade career, and a country’s foreign policies change under different circumstances at different times. Nevertheless, Wu today is seen and appreciated as a dovish figure because he strongly believed that muscle flexing would not be in the best interests of China in the current international environment.

In that sense, as Wu once said, being dovish was not a sign of weakness – it was just a different strategy. That’s also the case with Beijing’s Hong Kong policies.

Hongkongers nowadays keep asking whether Beijing has departed from its earlier hands-off approach by taking a more hardline position in handling the city’s affairs. Such guessing games may go nowhere since, soft or tough, it may be merely a choice of different means to achieving the same goal.

To Beijing, post-1997 Hong Kong needs to understand that national interests play a key role in its Hong Kong policymaking and implementation; it’s not a matter of the personal styles of certain officials.

In this regard, Wu came across as dovish, but was also tough at the same time, including on issues that mattered to Hong Kong.