Effective Envoys

The top levels of government need to put their thinking caps on and decide how best we can restore Hong Kong’s image and reputation overseas. This effort will require the support of the whole community.

It will not be easy. Part of the problem arises because of the interplay between three groups of people who do not wish us well: local opposition figures who have moved overseas to avoid the consequences of alleged illegal acts in 2019 (some maintain a high profile in their new homes to continue the struggle); individuals in the past administration, business or media circles who held high-profile positions in the colonial era and have never really accepted their loss of status in the new situation of Chinese administration; and the determination of the United States, with the support of some western governments under its influence, to hobble China’s economic development by fair means or foul in order to maintain its preeminence.

These groups interact in front of the international media which is always keen to report on a controversy. So a former political leader will make a dramatic claim to have escaped from Hong Kong to avoid persecution, a former bigwig will lend support, and the administration concerned will arrange a photo op with a senior figure to give everyone some free publicity. The two has-beens get one final hurrah, the host government enjoys a boost to its reputation, the media sell more copies or attract more views to their websites. Everybody wins.

It is even better if the Hong Kong authorities can be lured into an intemperate response, then the whole merry-go-round can complete the circle again.

How can we diminish the false narrative about our city and tell the whole world the real situation here?

Perhaps we should start by ceasing to add fuel to the fire. Whenever our officials attack named individuals in a high-profile way using strong language, the result is only to add luster to their standing. Publicity-seeking senators and congressmen will be lining up to have photographs with them. I was particularly disappointed to hear the secretary for justice and the secretary for security say that going after the fugitives would be the top priority in following up enactment of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance. I have serious doubts that is the best course of action. Saying so just indicates we have lost our sense of reality: after all the individuals will never come back and their host governments will never extradite them. Surely our first priority should be to govern wisely and ensure social stability is maintained. How about a statutory minimum size of residential unit so that the creative young people we want to retain and attract have the prospect of decent living accommodation for themselves and their families? How about a decent minimum wage?

What should our message be? Simple – Hong Kong is a great place to live and work. We are a very safe city to visit and travel advisories by some governments to the contrary are dishonest. If you have any doubts, come and see for yourselves. We should not be drawn into clause by clause debates on our new legislation, just a brief statement, issued calmly, to point out that everything we have done is also present in other common law jurisdictions, and we are as entitled as anyone else to protect our country’s security. Then we should stop talking. The fire will never go out if we continue to give it oxygen.

When should our PR drive begin? One suggestion is to wait until all pending high-profile trials have been completed. I do not support this idea: the proceedings will run for many months yet including appeals and there may be new ones in future. We cannot afford to be held hostage to judicial processes which run relatively slowly if we are to continue to promise a fair trial, which we must. In the end, we will be judged by what we do, not by what we say, so we must continue to do the right thing.

Who will make the best envoys? Sorry to say I cannot think of a single minister who comes across as a natural diplomat. The best performances by locals that I have seen so far have been by the current and former convenors of the unofficial members of the executive council. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee stood up well to the customary tough questioning on BBC’s Hardtalk, and Bernard Charnwut Chan gallantly carried the flag on the CNN interview with Julia Chatterley. But they are both part of the establishment so however well they perform there will always be a discount applied. Looking back to 2003 when AmCham chairman Jim Thompson stepped up to help Hong Kong’s economy recover in the aftermath of SARS, we could find our answer: we should trawl the international business community, particularly chairmen of international chambers of commerce to identify effective spokespersons. Hong Kong has many friends and supporters from the international community already based here, in some cases for many years. Who better to talk to Americans than another Yank? Or an Aussie to speak to those down under. A Kiwi to those from the land of the long white cloud, a Canuck to the Americans without guns.

But in the end it will take a combined effort from all of us. Everyone with friends or relatives overseas should be urging visits. Hong Kong itself is its own best salesman, it just needs a chance to speak.