Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive John Lee had his first Legislative Council (LegCo) Q&A on 6 July. He described Hong Kong as a junzi (君子, gentleman) among xiaoren (小人, nasty people) in the world and said Hong Kong could not leave its achievements to be discovered by chance; it had to be “upfront and explicit” in promoting itself.
Junzi and xiaoren soon became keywords in Hong Kong media reports. Actually, lawmaker Chan Siu-hung who had asked the question was actually harsher with his words. He said that “foreign forces” often played up the Hong Kong issue in a bid to thwart China’s development. He asked how Lee’s government intended to explain its policies better, debunk false information and respond to attacks, so as to tell the Hong Kong and China stories better.
John Lee obviously shared Chen’s sentiments. He seemed prepared for the question and praised Chan for hitting the nail on the head. In a subtle jibe that Hong Kong’s previous publicity efforts have fallen short, he replied that the Hong Kong government has been pragmatic and grounded but it was a gentleman amid a sea of nasty people.
... Lee’s leadership style will be very different from his predecessor Carrie Lam...
Showcasing Hong Kong’s advantages
He then elaborated on three areas: showcasing Hong Kong’s advantages and achievements to the international community; using social media and new forms of expression and being less conservative; and being pragmatic yet bold, with a personal touch, which includes sending officials on overseas trips to promote the city.
With the LegCo made up of “patriots”, Lee faced little opposition and could explain himself well, coming across as steady. Over 90 minutes, he answered 17 questions and announced a plan to set up four working groups to tackle Hong Kong’s pressing bread and butter issues, namely inter-generational poverty, land and housing supply, municipal issues and public housing projects. These groups would be led by the chief secretary and financial secretary and their respective deputies.
After taking office, Lee has said more than once that he hopes management at the departmental levels can hold their own, and the senior levels can delegate more of their responsibilities. According to Hong Kong media reports, Lee’s leadership style will be very different from his predecessor Carrie Lam — he will not hoard decisions and will only set the general direction and leave policymaking, implementation and coordination to subordinates.
The heads of the four working groups submitted proposals, such as the scheme to lift some 2,000 junior secondary school students in the notorious "subdivided flats" out of poverty by providing volunteer mentors and equipping them with financial literacy. Other proposals include a three-month clean-up campaign and plan to increase public housing supply within the next five years.
Lee, who has emphasised policy implementation, also proposed setting up a chief executive policy unit and having a monthly meeting with lawmakers.
After the national security law came into force in 2020 and the electoral system was overhauled in 2021, opposition forces in Hong Kong have widely been cleaned up and suppressed. Lee took office after the “clean-up” and is expected to have an easier path than his two predecessors. Beijing will also be more proactive in making Hong Kong a calling card of “one country, two systems”.
Lee’s policy proposals echoed the wishes expressed by President Xi. The Chinese leader talked about having a “well-functioning government” under the “four hopes for Hong Kong” in his speech at Lee’s inauguration on 1 July, which also marked the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover. Xi said he hoped Hong Kong would improve its governance, strengthen economic development, address the difficulties in people’s lives and promote values centred on a love of the motherland and Hong Kong.
The lawmakers in the Q&A session also urged Lee to lead the Hong Kong government in “telling the Hong Kong story well” and effectively implement “one country, two systems”. But this is perhaps the most difficult thing to do.
But can the Hong Kong story be told well if the issue is viewed through a “gentleman versus nasty people” lens?
Tarnish in Hong Kong’s international image may be irreversible
As long as political resistance is removed, Hong Kong’s livelihood problems should be resolved. But the 2019 anti-extradition bill protest and the ensuing shifts in Hong Kong’s political and media environment have raised doubts in the West about Hong Kong’s freedom and openness. Sanctions by the US and the UK do not help either. In fact, Lee and Chief Secretary for Administration Eric Chan are still under US sanctions.
Under such circumstances, it is inevitable that some pro-establishment Hong Kong politicians are hostile and defensive towards Western forces. But can the Hong Kong story be told well if the issue is viewed through a “gentleman versus nasty people” lens? Besides, publicity and promotion is not the forte of Lee, who is a former police officer.
Perhaps it is more meaningful to tell the story of Hong Kong to the mainland Chinese.
But then again, “telling the Hong Kong story well” to international society is perhaps not what the central government wants from Hong Kong.
Amid celebratory events marking the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, TV series The Stories of Lion Rock Spirit (《狮子山下的故事》) starring actors from both the mainland and Hong Kong also made its way to Singapore. A friend who watched it said, “It feels like a Chinese production delivered in Cantonese. Will Hong Kongers watch the series? Seems like it’s targeted at the mainland audience.”
A TV series on patriotic and diligent Hong Kongers may well be a show of goodwill from the central government. Perhaps it is more meaningful to tell the story of Hong Kong to the mainland Chinese. This seems necessary given the prevalent tensions between the people on both sides.
Related: Can John Lee be that all-round leader that Hong Kong needs? | Why John Lee is Beijing's top pick for Hong Kong's next chief executive | One country, two systems: Can Hong Kong hold on to its characteristics? | Is Hong Kong becoming just another Chinese city? | 25 years after the handover: The ‘end for Hong Kong’ or just the beginning? | ‘New Hong Kongers’ entering politics must act in the interests of all Hong Kongers