How Xu Jiatun won the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people
Beijing’s former top envoy to the city during British rule who died this week was well-respected for his relatively liberal views, even though it led to his exile
It has been 26 years since Xu Jiatun fled to the US. But news of his death in Los Angeles this week still resonated in Hong Kong. Beijing’s former top envoy to the city was one of the most well-known mainland faces during the transitional period of Hong Kong returning to Chinese sovereignty. But what set him apart from other cadres was his relatively liberal style, a quality much appreciated by the people here. Xu’s seven-year stint in Hong Kong was closely tied to development that helped shape the city into what it is today. He took over the helm at the former Xinhua News Agency when Britain and China entered the crucial stage of negotiation over the city’s post-1997 future. He was Beijing’s eyes and ears here, reaching out to different walks of life, lining up meetings between tycoons and state leaders, and encouraging businessmen and pro-democracy figures to form political parties in the run-up to the handover.
Unlike conventional communists, Xu ditched the staid, Mao-era outfits in favour of Western-style suits and ties and even paraded on the catwalk at the first fashion show here by Shanghai models. His visit to a nightclub in Tsim Sha Tsui – probably a symbolic act echoing Beijing’s promise of continuing the city’s way of life – also saw him showered with bouquets and brickbats.
The public was perhaps most impressed by his show of sympathy towards those taking part in the pro-democracy movement in 1989. He talked to those on hunger strike outside Xinhua’s headquarters here, mirroring what late premier Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) did in Tiananmen Square. He also allowed local pro-Beijing groups to participate in June 4-related protests, albeit with conditions. But, in the end, the fallout from those tumultuous events prompted him to seek refuge the following year in the US, where he stayed and died with his wish of returning to China unfulfilled. Pro-democracy fighters may still regard Xu as a conservative. In an interview with this paper in 2007, he said people would not become “masters of their own future” even when universal suffrage was achieved. But his open mind and liberal style remain much appreciated by Hongkongers. It would be good to see more of such qualities from mainland officials.