I have always had a soft spot for Georgetown, District of Colombia, as I was taught to style it. The university campus, with its reserved parking spaces for Jesuits; the stroll down leafy O Street to Wisconsin Avenue; the canal path; the famous Exorcist Steps; Weismuller’s Deli; the ghosts of ladies Kennedy and Harriman; even the Safeway – happy memories of a simpler and more cheerful age when you could do a paper on counter-value nuclear targeting strategy, or a bong, or both, and all was right with the world.
So I almost instinctively clicked on the link when I saw that Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary John Tsang had passed through the US capital’s exclusive neighbourhood to deliver a speech. Yet before I had even finished that split-second application of finger upon mouse, I knew instinctively that it was a mistake. What sort of speech does any senior government official from the Big Lychee give when visiting foreign parts? The answer is, invariably, one that is embarrassingly lame – too vacuous even to count as inane.
Tsang’s utterances in Washington on Saturday were a perfect example, bordering on a parody of the standard ritualistic blather – which, among other things, surely insults the people who invited you in the first place. He starts with drivel about universities’ rankings and then praises the ‘cultural appreciation’ Hong Kong students gain in such places, before getting into the predictable, hardcore tedium.
Hong Kong, gateway, regional headquarters, 6.3% growth, pillar industries, logistics, 12th Five-Year Plan, CEPA – the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (“an unprecedented example of a city having a free trade pact with its sovereign”), rule of law, low taxes, free flow of information, creative industries, technology, knowledge-based industries like medical services, creative and cultural industries, we don’t pick winners, integration with the Mainland, growing role as the gateway [again] to the Mainland, thank you.
The audience seems to have been mainly the aforementioned Hong Kong students, perhaps bussed in by our DC trade office. But that’s hardly an excuse for unoriginal and meaningless babble. Indeed, people from the Big Lychee would be far more likely to see through the silliness in this stock speech. CEPA is a 2003-era PR gimmick; Hong Kong has zero commercial advantage as a medical hub; the city’s role as a gateway is declining other than as a choke-point for billions of outbound Mainland tourists; and so on.
Instead of spouting unconvincingly upbeat descriptions of the delights awaiting them, Tsang could have given his audience a blunt appraisal of prospects back home. As in many economies right now, college graduates in Hong Kong are complaining about poor job opportunities. A fair assessment of this problem would have been a hundred times more credible.
He could have touched on employment conditions, which have become an increasingly touchy subject in Hong Kong in recent years. The most recent strike is at ThyssenKrupp Elevator, whose mechanical staff keep such vital infrastructure as the Mid-Levels Escalator moving. The workers are complaining of 33-hour shifts.
Tsang could have told his young listeners that the lift maintenance guys don’t realize how lucky they are. Their employer, after all, is descended from Krupp, manufacturer of famous huge guns for the German army in World War I. Their former colleagues during World War II, Tsang could have pointed out, were kept as slave labour, fed only 2,000 calories a day, including soup made from diseased horse meat, forced to wear wooden shoes, suffered lice and TB infestations, and much, much more. No whining about having to live on HK$7,000 a month back then.
What better chance to manage expectations – and vividly – among new graduates about to enter our workforce with wild dreams of easy wealth? Yet Tsang missed it.