Last week, commenting on the hand over of Hong Kong, PR Week
thundered ’it will be China which is on trial. And the world will expect
it to live up to its promises’. Judged by such a yardstick, the Chinese
dismissal of the existing legislative council for an appointed body, which
then rubber-stamped illiberal new laws, and the high-profile entry of the
Peoples Liberation Army were a PR disaster.
Nonetheless, it could be that Beijing saw its objectives differently.
What seem heavy-handed blunders to us might have been intended as highly
effective communications of China’s intentions.
Its approach and priorities can be clearly read. First, the PLA’s
deployment was a clear assertion of Chinese sovereignty and a rejection of
any pariah status for the PLA after Tiananmen Square. The PLA might not
have a planned internal security role, but its presence sends a clear
message. China is not embarrassed by assertive nationalism.
Second, China has signalled by its actions that, while it wishes to
preserve Hong Kong’s economic success and to reassure Taiwan about the
prospects for diversity in unification, these are secondary to its
determination that the democracy virus should not be allowed to infect the
China’s key messages were about unification on terms it finds
Next May’s elections might be free and fair, but if they are, China will
have ensured that they exceed expectations. The failure of senior Britons
- let alone the international community - to present a united front
against the swearing in of the interim legislative body suggests that the
Chinese will be allowed a great degree of latitude in eroding Hong Kong’s
political freedoms. As long as the rule of the law and economic freedoms
are preserved, business will collude in such a balance. Sadly, parts of
the Hong Kong media seem to have started down a road of
There will be some constraints on China: Hong Kong is nervous and, at
least for the short term, it will be important to keep on board those top
people kept on from the previous administration. But the Chinese have
lowered the benchmark against which they will be judged, just as Chris
Patten had sought to raise it. Their message might have been unwelcome,
but their communication was certainly effective.