Hong Kong’s impossible dream: To remake its international image

June 16, 2020 11:07
Photo: Reuters

For the second time in 10 months, the Hong Kong government is trying to salvage its tattered reputation by seeking the help of public relations consultants. But the timing, coming as it does right after China’s announcement of a national security law to be imposed on Hong Kong, is bad; two of seven firms that took part in the initial tendering process have already pulled out.

Edelman, the world’s largest public relations company, withdrew its tender and has cited “changes in global issues environment.” MSL, a French company, dropped out earlier. But one firm, Redhill of Singapore, has said that it would be “honored” to be given the opportunity to work with the Hong Kong government.

This is progress of sorts. Last August, when the city sounded out eight global public relations companies, it did not get a single positive response and was advised that the time was not right, with protests every weekend.

Now, again, the timing is awful. The national security law is on everyone’s minds. The mainland will be sending security personnel to operate openly, in conjunction with the Hong Kong police. One priority is to prevent, stop and punish “foreign interference.”

Granted, the goal in this Relaunch Hong Kong exercise is economic and not political. According to tender documents, the city wants to “ensure that overseas businesspeople, investors, traders and professionals are aware of Hong Kong’s economic recovery and continued strengths and advantages as a global financial, trade and services hub in the Asian time zone.”

But it won’t be easy to convince an international audience that things in Hong Kong have returned to normal. This is especially so when political pressure is being put on corporations, including HSBC, a global bank, to voice public support for the national security law, which fact is then used to show the world that Hong Kong itself, including the business community, wants this law..

Ultimately, the key is whether the global audience believes that “one country, two systems” still works and that Hong Kong retains “a high degree of autonomy.”

A key issue is Chief Executive Carrie Lam herself. She has increasingly acted the part of Beijing’s agent in Hong Kong, rather than the city’s champion in the Chinese capital. She has been leading the campaign against external interference and, unprompted, made unpopular decisions that she believed Beijing would approve, including the attempt last year to pass a law that would provide for extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China.

And last week, at a press conference, she was asked again about an incident in 2018 when Hong Kong announced the unprecedented denial of a work visa to a Financial Times correspondent, Victor Mallet. At the time, she denied that Beijing had intervened to bring this about. Last week, she clarified the situation by saying: “Where things are in the national interest, I do not need to be instructed or told to do what is right to safeguard the national interest.” That is to say, she would act pre-emptively, without waiting for instructions.

Hong Kong’s relationship with China is something that a global audience will want to take into account. Two decades ago, when China’s image was that of a country that was reforming and opening up, Hong Kong benefited from that association. Today, China’s image is badly tarnished and Hong Kong suffers as a result.

Unless China manages to improve its image, there is bound to be a shadow over Hong Kong’s reputation as long as the city is seen as not being substantially autonomous.

It is unclear what role Hong Kong can play in the future within China’s tight grip. Both Beijing and Hong Kong should understand that the more China tightens its control of the city, the less Hong Kong will be perceived as an open global city by the world.

Ironically, the situation today is in marked contrast with that in September 1997, when the first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, visited the United States.

Tung had to explain “one country, two systems” to the world, and the fact that Hong Kong, not Beijing, made the day-to-day decisions. He pointed out at a press conference that when Hong Kong decided to review its tax system, one American newspaper ran a story under the headline, “China launches review of Hong Kong’s tax system.”

Over time, bit by bit, Hong Kong showed the world that it did, indeed, act autonomously. But now, especially after events of the last year, the image of a free and prosperous Hong Kong, with its own decision-making process, has faded. It is simply no longer believed.
To remake that international image is, as they say, a mission impossible.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.