Chief executive-elect John Lee with President Xi Jinping in Beijing on May 30. Photo: Xinhua
Patrick Jiang
Patrick Jiang

If John Lee wants to improve communication with the mainland, he should look beyond Beijing

  • Past administrations have taken ‘communicating with the mainland’ to mean only liaising with the central government
  • But regional governments can also affect Hong Kong in profound and unexpected ways, and the new administration must learn to confer with provincial officials too
As John Lee Ka-chiu’s inauguration as Hong Kong’s fifth chief executive nears, I have been thinking back on the successes and failures of past administrations. One thing I hope the new administration can do better is communicate with mainland China.

The political discourse in Hong Kong often blurs the distinction between “mainland China” and “Beijing”. After all, the Basic Law, which provides our constitutional framework, talks mostly about Hong Kong’s relationship with the central government.

But one should not forget that there are also numerous regional governments in China, all of which can affect Hong Kong in profound and unexpected ways. Learning to communicate with all of them will do immense good for Hong Kong.

Consider what happened when we tried to reopen the border with Guangdong last year. Starting around July 1, Beijing’s liaison office launched a series of “listening tours” to visit the grass roots in Hong Kong and respond to their hardships. They concluded that reopening the border was top priority.
Chen Dong, deputy director of the central government’s liaison office, visits communities in Tin Shui Wai on October 2, 2021. Photo: Handout
Eventually, a date was set for December 17. Lee himself, then chief secretary, visited Shenzhen to iron out the final details with mainland counterparts. In fact, things were going so well that the start date was even brought forward to December 3. Talk about generating expectations.
But the reopening never happened. Throughout the ordeal, people wondered what was wrong. On December 29, the Post was still reporting that “Beijing [was] reluctant to give the green light”. However, it made no sense to me that the central government should be the reason for the hold-up.

For one thing, the liaison office had just spent months trying to rehabilitate Beijing’s image in Hong Kong. This would have been a top political concern because it was a time of heightened controversy for “one country, two systems”.

For another, the liaison office spoke directly for the central government, and since they are all good students of Deng Xiaoping, they must know what Deng used to say about not making big promises then failing to deliver, lest people lose faith in the party. So, I do not believe the liaison office was messing around. I think they were just as exasperated as the rest of us.


Hong Kong-Shenzhen border reopening on hold again as both sides grapple with Covid-19 resurgence

Hong Kong-Shenzhen border reopening on hold again as both sides grapple with Covid-19 resurgence

There had to be another player. Again, quoting the Post on December 29: “Michael Tien Puk-sun said … that according to his understanding, Beijing had already set a date for the reopening, but local authorities across the border still had concerns. ‘Shenzhen and Zhuhai seem to be nervous about the risk of Omicron outbreaks, so the plan is on hold right now,’ he said.”

In reality, Shenzhen and Zhuhai had little or no interest in the border reopening. Officials there were being asked to do something good for the central government, yet they had nothing to gain and everything to lose if even one case came over the border.

However, what was really surprising was that they had the guts and the power to say “no” to the central government, even at the cost of alienating Hongkongers and potentially undermining one country, two systems.

Everyone else, including the Hong Kong and central governments, was learning that Chinese governance is not as centralised as they thought, and even provinces and cities can have minds of their own.

Shanghai lockdown is testing public faith in the government

Not long afterwards, the fifth pandemic wave hit Hong Kong and plans for the border reopening were swiftly forgotten. However, there are still important lessons to remember.

When Lee engages in his first conversations as chief executive with the mainland, I hope he will understand that he is not dealing with just one counterpart but with many, sometimes fractious counterparts. Finding a way to communicate with them all will help him to succeed where others have failed.

Finally, I hope Lee will think deeply about how his government fits into the overall political structure of China, and whether a special administrative region can have at least as much fortitude as “just another Chinese city”. I wish Lee every success in his new administration.

Patrick Jiang is an honorary research associate at the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong