Reading Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong Speeches

China in Context Newsletter Issue 41
July 3, 2017 Updated: July 6, 2017

Official speeches by Chinese officials are sleep-inducing stuff—until you get past the obligatory Communist Party rhetorical verbiage and sift out the new content.  

At first glance, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s final speech at the end of his three-day Hong Kong visit, marking the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to mainland China, bodes ill for Hongkongers—especially in light of inflammatory comments made a day earlier by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Ministry spokesman Lu Kang declared that the 1984 Sino–British handover treaty was merely a “historical document” that “no longer has any realistic meaning,” which elicited responses from the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States.

On July 1, the anniversary of the handover, Xi said that “any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government,” and to “use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage against the mainland” would “cross the red line and is absolutely impermissible.”

He added that “making everything political or deliberately creating differences and provoking confrontation” is no way to solve problems and “can only severely hinder Hong Kong’s economic and social development.”

Xi’s talk of needing to go tough on infiltration and sabotage recalls the Chinese regime’s efforts to get Hong Kong lawmakers to enact Article 23, anti-subversion legislation that observers argued would target free speech and groups suppressed by the communist regime. Over half a million Hongkongers protested a 2003 proposal to pass the controversial bill, and the city’s residents have held out ever since.

New Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam might decide to try to push through Article 23, but exactly whom Xi is really addressing in his speech is open to interpretation.

Hong Kong's chief executive-elect Carrie Lam in Hong Kong on March 27, a day after Lam won the Hong Kong chief executive election. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)
Hong Kong’s chief executive-elect Carrie Lam in Hong Kong on March 27, a day after Lam won the Hong Kong chief executive election. (ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)

Xi could be targeting the youthful pro-democracy activists of the 2014 Umbrella protests, or the fringe “Hong Kong independence” movement, which advocates independence for the city-state. Or Xi could be targeting the Chinese and Hong Kong officials and businessmen who are part of a rival political faction helmed by former Communist Party don Jiang Zemin.

There is a case to be made that Xi is singling out Jiang’s faction rather than the passionate youngsters or veteran pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

The Jiang faction’s various attempts over the past five years to fracture Hong Kong society, in hopes of creating crises to embarrass the Xi leadership, are well documented.

The 2014 Umbrella protests, for instance, became a mass movement overnight after the police, under ex-Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying‘s oversight, fired 87 cans of tear gas into a crowd of protesters. Leung also magnified pro-independence elements in Hong Kong—probably knowing full well that the Chinese Liaison Office and the Chinese state press would follow up with anger—even though most Hongkongers aren’t in favor of a sovereign Hong Kong.  

The Jiang faction appears to have made an even more blatant attempt to trip up Xi when he was in Hong Kong.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has been under the thumb of Jiang’s faction since the 1990s, and it remains one of several parts of the state that Xi does not appear to have full control over. The ministry’s unreasonable statement about the 1984 handover treaty seems construed to make Xi look duplicitous to Hongkongers. The treaty guarantees the freedoms Hongkongers enjoy, and declaring the treaty void would be akin to enacting Article 23 by imperial edict.  

Considering everything Xi said in Hong Kong, however, it seems he wants to build rapport with Hongkongers, not increase repression.

“Hong Kong has always tugged at my heartstrings,” Xi said after arriving at Hong Kong airport on June 29. He added that his leadership is willing to work with “different sectors of Hong Kong society” to build a “far-reaching future.”

In other speeches, Xi has tried his hand at Cantonese, the Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong that Hongkongers strongly feel is part of their native identity. He has also cited a popular Cantopop tune from the 1980s and used a local saying. Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife, used Cantonese phrases when engaging with the elderly at a nursing home.