Lovers of linguistic confusion have had a pleasing little side show to Mr Zhang Dejiang’s visit: a controversy over whether the trip has been or should be described as an “inspection”.  Readers had to be careful in their choice of newspapers to enjoy this. Some newspapers refused to describe it as an inspection as a matter of principle. Some, on the other hand, notably the English version of the China Daily, insisted on describing it as an inspection as a matter of editorial policy.

Zhang Dejiang
Zhang Dejiang concluded his visit in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Clearly this is to some extent a translation problem. There is a Chinese phrase which is conventionally translated as “inspection”. But this does not settle the matter because in translation there is always the possibility that the conventional does not fit particular circumstances.

One of the dumber local columnists, for example, pointed out that the last time the Queen of England visited Hong Kong, then a colony, this was also described as an “inspection”. Well it may have been in the Chinese press, but no English publication would refer to a Royal visit as an “inspection”. The Queen is a constitutional monarch. It is not her job to inspect anything but the occasional guard of honour.

And this, of course, is the root of the problem. In English, at least, the idea of “inspection” covers a wide range of possibilities.

During the brief pause in the Napoleonic wars following the Peace of Amiens tourists flocked to Paris, and one of the attractions was the chance to see Napoleon himself reviewing his personal horse guards, which he did every Sunday. The historian of horse matters notes that this “was no mere ceremony, but a serious inspection in which questions were asked and answered, and noted by the accompanying Chief of Staff in a green pocketbook.” This may be regarded as one extreme – a visit by well-informed superior with questions and follow-up action. Military inspections are frequent, detailed, and directed at the important question whether the inspected troops are looking after their equipment properly.

An inspection of Napoleon’s Old Guard. Photo: Wikicommons.

At the other extreme? Well in my musical capacity I can occasionally be found warbling encouragingly at the back of passing out parades staged by various uniformed groups. As part of the proceedings the presiding “officer” is invited to inspect the troops, and tours the parade ground for this purpose. He or she occasionally stops to chat, to the dismay of the perspiring musicians who are expected to keep up a continuous background barrage of slow music. The presiding person then usually finishes by inspecting us. He or she floats towards the band. Our leader advances, salutes, and says “Thank you for your inspection, Sir”. Or madam as the case may be. The sir or madam then walks slowly past our front row. No comments are offered, and as we do not share the uniform of the people on parade we could get away with anything – Dutch bicycle troops, Italian bersaglieri – as long as we all look the same.

This is inspection as a polite gesture, and it is a common feature of state visits. The visitor is greeted by the commander of the guard of honour, traditionally carrying a drawn sword in a vertical position, and said visitor is conducted along the front row, followed by the civilian and military subordinates of both parties. The guard of honour have been preparing for weeks. They have been carefully inspected in advance by the local equivalent of a terrifying Regimental Sergeant Major. Compliments are traditional and usually justified. In the unlikely event that you spotted an unpolished button it would be churlish to say so.

hong kong police
Police during the Zhang visit. Photo: Todd Darling.

I think in the context of official visits the important difference is between inspections without warning, however friendly, and those in which the victims are told in advance that the visitor is coming. Clearly in the latter case the “inspector” is rarely going to see anything but what the inspectees wish him to see. What should be white has been freshly painted, what should be clean is freshly cleaned, what should not be seen has been freshly hidden. That does not mean that the inspection is valueless. The preparations probably involve a lot of useful painting, cleaning, etc. Also the perceptive inspector will be able to derive some information from whether the preparations have been done well or badly. He will not discover what the inspected unit looks like on an ordinary working day. But the question whether they can put up a good show is worth an answer.

Zhang Dejiang
Zhang Dejiang at the Development Bureau. Photo: GovHK.

The downside to this, we must note, is that the effort to impress a visitor may lead to a great deal of trouble and expense, some of which may have no useful purpose. I notice for example that Mr Zhang was shown a three-dimensional model at least as big as a King-sized double bed of Lantau Island after further planned vandalism in the name of “development”. This had apparently not featured in the recent public consultation exercise on when and where such development should take place, the conclusions of which have at least in theory not yet been decided. The relevant policy secretary denied that any guns were being jumped. The version in the model was “not final”, he told the media. Readers may be tempted to take this with a pinch of salt. Supposing it is true, though, this means that the model, cost so far unspecified, had absolutely no useful role in life except – hopefully – to impress one visitor who, one must suspect, is as capable of reading a map as the next man.

So where does this leave us with Mr Zhang’s inspection or visit? It does not appear that Mr Zhang wanted, or needed, to look at Hong Kong. Nor did his programme include any events which suggested that a staff officer with a green pocketbook would have been useful. Banquets, cocktails, visits to science park, ordinary people, CE. Actually it looked rather like a Royal visit used to. Only the opening of a Zhang Dejiang Hospital was missing. I do not think Royal visits have ever been described as inspections in English and I do not think Mr Zhang’s visit should be either. But the Chinese word may be more versatile.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.