President Jiang

I have fond memories of President Jiang Zemin, who passed away last week at the age of 96. Though he did not know it, he had a great influence on my life and career.

In July 2000 I had been asked to set up a new government department, InvestHK, to attract businesses from around the world to set up in our city. It was a challenging assignment. The images of Hong Kong over the three previous years that lingered in foreigners’ minds were largely negative: the armoured vehicles of the People’s Liberation Army crossing the border in the early hours of 1 July 1997 in pouring rain; the last British Governor sailing away; the chicken cull to deal with bird flu (remember the CNN film of still live chickens struggling in the plastic garbage bags while hungry dogs tried to break them open?); the East Asian economic crisis etc. Everywhere we went in those early months, these were the things businesspeople remembered and asked about.

Around that time, a representative of Fortune magazine was passing through Hong Kong on his way to another city in Southeast Asia hoping to negotiate a contract to host the 2001 Fortune Global Forum. The event in those days was annual, alternating between Europe and Asia, and had been held in several cities around the region but never before in Hong Kong. In 1999 it had been held in China for the first time to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. The Shanghai forum was spectacularly successful with the President and many senior officials attending, plus hundreds of top business leaders from around the world. The representative had called on a friend in another government department on his way through to ask about the prospects of an organization here sponsoring the conference. The friend advised him that such sponsorship deals did not fit conveniently within the scope of government procurement procedures, but there was a new department with a bit more flexibility.

Next thing the Fortune guy was in my office showing me a draft of the contract. The problem was easy to spot: essentially the sponsor was being asked to pay for very expensive advertising in a glossy magazine (not very worthwhile on a standalone basis) while the Forum which was very valuable as a marketing tool was being provided and organized for free.

We had been casting around for a PR opportunity to boost Hong Kong’s profile in international business circles in a positive way. The Forum fit the bill and we agreed the terms.

In the course of the discussion, the Fortune representative asked if we could secure the chief executive to give the opening night address. I said we could but we should be aiming for a national leader as this would be a significant event for the whole country. His reply was indicative of the attitude of many people at that time. “But they won’t come here. Everyone knows Beijing prefers Shanghai, not Hong Kong.” I politely disagreed, and he politely welcomed the possibility of being proved wrong.

I next floated the suggestion with chief executive Tung Chee-hwa who immediately saw the possibilities and took the opportunity of meeting the president at an event in Macau (celebration of the handover anniversary of that city) to put forward the invitation directly. Before his staff could intercede, President Jiang eagerly agreed.

The rest, as they say, is history. There followed weeks of liaison meetings with senior officials of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the state council to hammer out detailed arrangements. The president not only attended the Hong Kong Forum and gave the opening night address, he brought with him more mainland officials of ministerial rank or above than had attended the Shanghai one. Somewhere in the InvestHK archives is a picture of President Jiang giving his speech in the Convention and Exhibition Centre – under the departmental logo. What a night.

Impressive and dramatic as that was, it is not the picture that lingers most in my mind. That came later as hundreds of high-powered guests from around the world spilled out of the great hall and walked along the connecting bridge to the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Every 50 metres stood a member of staff of the new department to usher the crowd, every man in his InvestHK tie, every woman wearing her InvestHK scarf. Glowing with pride for their department, their city, their country. The momentum gained from that event was to carry us through the tough times of the SARS epidemic just two years later.

On a side note, we were to hear later that President Jiang had wanted to give his opening address in English. It was well known that he could recite the Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln from memory, and enjoyed singing the Elvis Presley song “Are you lonesome tonight?” Giving his speech in English would have emphasized the point that Hong Kong was an international business city as well as being part of China. In the event, his staff prevailed on him to speak the national language on the grounds that he was on sovereign soil. Unfortunately, that view prevailed but that it had even been an option seemed then – and seems now – pretty significant.

Even speaking Putonghua Jiang had conveyed the most important point: that Hong Kong was an important city in China with the full backing of the Central People’s Government. Working together there was no limit to what we might achieve. A few weeks later, I lodged my application for Chinese Nationality.

Thank you, President Jiang. Hong Kong will miss you.