Let's be clear on the instruction

Editorial | Mary Ma 24 Mar 2021

Did Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung say Beijing had "instructed" the Hong Kong government to crack down hard on housing woes when he was interviewed by British newspaper the Financial Times?

Or did he not?

Perhaps few would have spotted it - if not for the high-profile denial of the "instruction" by the SAR.

This came first in a statement in the name of a government spokesman released just before Monday midnight and then personally by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in the morning.

In the interview, published on Monday, the Financial Times quoted the SAR's No 2 as saying that the central government had "instructed" the SAR to crack the hard nut in reference to the problems of housing, land and the wealth gap.

Admittedly, this conformed to the common understanding after Vice Premier Han Zheng told a group of NPC deputies during the recent plenary session in Beijing that Hong Kong had to start solving these issues, however difficult they were.

So was it an instruction or merely an expression of goodwill and no more than that?

Frankly, it requires one to be ultra-sensitive to language to see it in a different way. As far as most people could see, they were the same since the words came directly from someone as high as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

There is no way the SAR could be expected to defy what Han has said - be it an instruction or an expression of goodwill, as the chief executive emphasized.

The extraordinary length with which the Hong Kong government has gone to clarify something so obvious has, nevertheless, helped distract attention from a more crucial message that Cheung tried to pitch to his interviewer.

This was that the SAR continued to be a tax haven for doing business and that companies would regret leaving the city.

The government must be keen to stress this message to the business world after the US-based Heritage Foundation stopped ranking Hong Kong and Macau independently in its annual economic freedom chart.

It also came amid reports of some foreign companies having relocated - or planning to relocate - their regional headquarters elsewhere due to the imposition of the national security law here.

Prior to the clarification, the public relations spin with Cheung in the Financial Times interview had largely been successful in view of the newspaper's headline which stated, "Hong Kong promises investors its prized tax haven status is secure."

As the report was picked up by the media locally, the coverage was flooded with positive news headlines saying Hong Kong was a tax haven that companies would regret leaving and other posit0ive angles.

Since the so-called clarification, the optimism has been replaced with phrases somewhat downbeat emphasizing Beijing had not instructed Hong Kong to do this or that.

Which was a stronger expression in terms of public relations? While the clarification has not altered the general understanding, it's a snipe at the SAR having much ado about nothing.

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