Judge and Jury: Heavy-handed PR? No, it was a deliberate shot across the bows - The Chinese message on Hong Kong was crystal clear, writes Edward Bickham, managing director of public affairs and corporate policy at Hill and Knowlton

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.

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

mainland.



China’s key messages were about unification on terms it finds

acceptable.



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

self-censorship.



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.



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