Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong Speech Study Sessions – All Performance, No Action?

President Xi Jinping’s speech in Hong Kong on July 1, outlining our future, received wide attention. Unusually for Hong Kong, authorities have so far held more than 60 sessions to study it and attendees included thousands of officials. Subsequently, education, social welfare, business and technology authorities, political parties, trade unions and community groups organized study sessions for community members, students from kindergarten to the general manager. But we were told that at least in schools, learning Xi’s speech was not “compulsory” yet. I am not aware that universities have so far organized such sessions for most staff and students.

Books about President Xi Jinping have been placed at the entrance to the 2022 Hong Kong Book Fair. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Apparently, the purpose of these sessions is to “learn” the discourse, promote it and implement it. In the words of Education Secretary Christine Choi, educators should organize the sessions to ensure that “all young people grasp the important concepts of the speech so that they understand that their goals and dreams in life should be closely linked to the future of the country”. A laudable goal that can seduce more than one.

I see several problems with the approach so far. First, these activities run the real risk of formalism, that is, simply performing, ticking boxes, and responding to an informal KPI for the number and size of study sessions. This type of KPI may not be what people expect. Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party recognizes formalism as a serious deviation from the political correctness identified by the party. The party organizes campaigns where it denounces formalism. Understanding the ideas in speech is unlikely to come from learning, paraphrasing, or repeating them.

Sessions on “the spirit of the President’s important speech” held by the Central and Western, Tsuen Wan, Eastern and Sha Tin district offices. Photo: Gov.HK

To avoid formalism, authorities must solve people’s problems and be seen to do so. In addition to organizing study sessions, the government should produce daily monitoring, for example, of the number of new social housing units made available to those on the waiting list. How about a social housing dashboard, similar to our widely used Covid dashboard, which identifies the goods and services provided that the public expects? Authorities can call it Xi Jinping’s Dashboard if it helps propaganda, focused only on delivered goods and services. Such a scorecard should not focus on the routine civil service-type performance promises of the past, set too low and captured by the civil service, which have become mostly propaganda and therefore meaningless.

Sessions on “the spirit of the President’s important speech” held by the Central and Western, Tsuen Wan, Eastern and Sha Tin district offices. Photo: Gov.HK

In his speech, Xi demanded that the authorities live up to people’s expectations. Xi and our government leaders have defined these expectations entirely as material goods and services, such as larger apartments. Regrettably, authorities have so far refused to investigate Hong Kongers’ expectations beyond the bare essentials. Surveys reveal that public expectations in Hong Kong are a mixture of tangible and intangible, such as non-material expectations to participate and influence public affairs. Thus, a second step to avoid formalism is to investigate public expectations, which should become a credible, transparent and ongoing activity. Many credible NGOs are already doing this and the authorities should take the results of their investigation seriously.

Second, and more importantly, the study sessions revealed a new political chasm separating our party-identified political class from the rest of us. The chaos of 2019 exposed fundamental political divisions in Hong Kong over the city’s future relationship with the mainland. These have not disappeared. Moreover, for decades we have seen the gap between rich and poor widen dangerously. Dangerous because inequalities can become another source of instability.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping officiates in Hong Kong on July 1, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

Members of Hong Kong’s political class have their own activities and interests, essentially retaining their membership in the political class and the benefits it confers, such as access and influence. Political studies sessions highlight the divide between political haves and have-nots. Using the national security law and new election provisions, authorities barred most Hong Kongers from participating. This discrepancy also risks destabilizing Hong Kong.

To manage a politically and economically divided Hong Kong, the authorities must meet the expectations of the people and be seen to do so. We don’t need propaganda on Xi’s speech, we need specific and concrete actions. A problem-solved dashboard, anyone?

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Denise W. Whigham