‘We have to tell people how great we are’: Hong Kong’s John Lee to adopt more proactive approach to promoting city on world stage

·6-min read

Hong Kong’s new leader John Lee Ka-chiu on Wednesday sought to distinguish his approach to promoting the city on the international stage from that of his predecessor, citing traditional phrases in insisting that the city had to “tell people how great we are”.

Quoting a Chinese saying that “musk naturally has fragrance”, essentially meaning the appeal of a particular thing is obvious, Lee said such a pragmatic and conservative approach was no longer ideal under the current political climate.

“Instead, when we draw a cartoon character, we should draw its intestines as well,” he continued, using a colloquial Cantonese phrase that refers to how one should offer more details about a particular subject.

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John Lee has vowed to reform the government’s publicity approach to a bold, proactive one. Photo: Sam Tsang
John Lee has vowed to reform the government’s publicity approach to a bold, proactive one. Photo: Sam Tsang

Lee, who took office on July 1, vowed to reform the government’s publicity approach to a bold, proactive one in “speaking up against smearing by foreign forces” and “telling stories of Hong Kong and China well”.

Policy delivery and communication strategies have been regarded as major weaknesses that plagued the previous administration – from its handling of the 2019 extradition bill saga which sparked months of social unrest to the confusing public health messaging in the Omicron-fuelled coronavirus epidemic.

In Lee’s first question and answer session in the Legislative Council on Wednesday, he revealed key strategies of his administration: building a narrative to present Hong Kong’s achievements, exploring new communication channels with residents and resuming official foreign visits.

“We are gentlemen, but there are lots of petty people in the world,” he said in response to a question by lawmaker Chan Siu-hung on measures to combat foreign forces amid the superpower rivalry.

“We have to be pragmatic, and also bold enough to speak out … We have to tell people how great we are.”

Lee listed out the city’s advantages which he suggested were worth showcasing to the international community, including its vitality, freedom, openness and rule of law, as well as new opportunities that come with deepened integration into mainland China.

John Lee has sought to distinguish his approach to promoting the city on the international stage from that of his predecessor Carrie Lam (left). Photo: Robert Ng
John Lee has sought to distinguish his approach to promoting the city on the international stage from that of his predecessor Carrie Lam (left). Photo: Robert Ng

In a media interview before Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s departure as chief executive, she said her “only regret” was that she could not conduct any foreign visits in the past three years due to the pandemic.

“Spokespersons for Hong Kong became foreign parliaments, Western media and those who departed Hong Kong,” she had said.

Lee had highlighted the importance of “telling Hong Kong stories well” since launching his campaign in April as the sole candidate backed by Beijing to take part in the chief executive election.

This was in line with a broad national blueprint of “Telling China stories well”, a phrase first coined by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 which has become an important guide for mainland officials to strengthen the country’s soft power through various communication strategies.

There have been signs of the new leader exploring social media platforms other than Facebook and Instagram – which his predecessor Lam relied on – as he also launched an official account on Weibo on his first day in office. In one week, his follower base grew to 65,900 on Weibo, 16,500 on Facebook and 3,500 on Instagram respectively.

Political scientist Ivan Choy of Chinese University. Photo: Edmond So
Political scientist Ivan Choy of Chinese University. Photo: Edmond So

But analysts did not see Lee’s strategies as promising, with political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung of Chinese University saying the government’s effort hinged on whether its crackdown on the opposition camp was still going on.

“The authorities’ effort might be meaningless if they keep going after activists, as the international community will focus on the arrests instead of the ‘good stories’ they seek to tell,” he said.

The stringent quarantine measures also affected the city’s image, Choy said, adding, “Foreign businesses care about this more than the city’s political atmosphere.”

Britain-based political scholar Steve Tsang also cast doubt on Lee’s approach, which he said was akin to China’s “wolf-warrior” diplomacy and could be counterproductive.

“Nothing has done greater damage to China’s global reputation and standing in recent years than the adoption of a ‘wolf-warrior’ approach to diplomacy, based on Xi’s instruction that officials must ‘tell China’s story well’ and ignore what the rest of the world says or thinks,” said Tsang, director of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) China Institute.

Riot police arrest protesters during the 2019 social unrest. Photo: Sam Tsang
Riot police arrest protesters during the 2019 social unrest. Photo: Sam Tsang

University of Hong Kong emeritus professor John Burns, who specialises in public administration, argued that the city suffered serious reputational damage as a result of the 2019 social unrest and the impact of the national security law, “of which people are reminded daily with further arrests, trials, incarceration and emigration”.

“No amount of government propaganda will reverse this situation, only action will do, including the government owning up to its shortcomings and failings, facilitating an honest and critical press which is necessary for effective governance,” he said.

“Solving problems in Hong Kong will build public support and people satisfaction. Residents then will spread the word, which is much more convincing than government propaganda.”

In the first decade since its return to Chinese rule, public resources had been spent on positioning Hong Kong as “Asia’s world city” which provided a vital gateway to mainland China and the rest of Asia.

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Following the 2019 unrest, the government spent HK$44 million (US$5.7 million) to hire Consulum, a public relations consultancy firm, to develop strategies highlighting Hong Kong’s recovery and showcasing it as “a place to invest, do business, work and live”.

This came after a survey which found that the unrest caused significant damage to Hong Kong’s attractiveness and the damage was clustered around the attributes of freedom, judicial independence and rule of law.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, an official campaign was launched late last year to rebrand Hong Kong as the only city in the world offering a secure, dynamic environment for business, an exciting, cosmopolitan lifestyle and direct access to the Chinese economy.

Holden Chow Ho-ding, lawmaker from the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said everyone had a role to play in boosting the city’s visibility on the global stage.

“I think it’s time really for us to garner this sort of support and put all this manpower into this task force to do the promotion on all fronts on the international level,” Chow said.

It was important for the government to “set the record straight when facing falsehoods”, he added.

Additional reporting by Lilian Cheng, Jeffie Lam and Harvey Kong

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