By Michelle Ng

If you want to find out why many of the world’s most prestigious PR firms have said “no” to the lucrative assignment of helping the Hong Kong government patch up its reputation – Edelman is the latest one to bolt – you just need to look at the photo below.

carrie lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam and top officials. Photo: GovHK.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her cabinet are pictured pledging their support to Beijing’s plan to impose a freedom-curbing law that may, among other things (many details are not yet forthcoming), allow the security apparatus of the communist regime up north to do as they like in the former British colony.

The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the photo was, they could really use a PR firm. Their awkward demeanour and air of resignation looked familiar; in a flash, I remembered where I’d last seen such body language – on the likes of Silda Spitzer and Huma Abedin, wronged political wives who had to swallow the humiliation of standing beside their errant husbands as the latter admitted to career-ending extramarital exploits.

Surely, if the Hong Kong government finally succeeds in finding a PR firm, one of the first things those spin doctors should work on is the posture of its members – how to project confidence even when what remains of your conscience is eating you inside, even when you’re embarrassed that your children have to see you this way.

Hong Kong people’s heads are now understandably filled with apparitions of thuggish mainland police snatching people off the streets in this supposedly semi-autonomous city; at the press conference, Lam tried to calm such fears.

The law would not hurt the rights of Hong Kong people. Neither would it affect the rule of law in Hong Kong. Nor would it affect the interests of foreign investors, she said.

To me, her denials only serve to confirm that public anxieties about the law are valid. Since assuming power, Lam has developed the nervous tic of issuing denials preemptively when she can sense others sensing the truth.

She has told the BBC “I’m no puppet of Beijing”; told the Financial Times “You may say that it’s shoe-shining but I have to say I find President Xi more and more charismatic and admirable”; told a group of business people concerned about the protests that her government’s battle to impose its version of truth on Hong Kong people is the “weakest link,” only to add “I dare not say (my) government carries out propaganda, but at least in terms of (the) dissemination of factual information we are very, very weak.”

hong kong on ad
Photo: BrandHK.

Lam’s best effort to deny that she is a Beijing puppet notwithstanding, the giveaway that Lam is at Beijing’s beck and call is hiding in plain sight – just look at the English text on the backdrop.

In Chinese we can write a sentence without a subject, and mainland official-speak often takes advantage of this feature of the Chinese language to be as evasive as possible. But hide the subject in English – “full support for establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms for the HKSAR to safeguard national security” – and the result is awkward.

In any case, the Hong Kong government is fooling itself if it thinks it has downplayed Beijing’s interference; Beijing’s fingerprints are made more conspicuous by their denial.

Another observation: the Chinese text comes directly from the dreaded bill itself; judging from the convoluted wording of the English equivalent, my guess is whoever translated it must have dared not depart even slightly from the Chinese original. The translator must have grown accustomed to the sight of those further up the chain of command treating other Beijing edicts like The Ten Commandments, and this fear of Beijing must have rubbed off on her.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

When a PR trade journal later asked the heads of PR firms who declined to be Hong Kong government’s spin doctors “why?”, they couldn’t resist speaking candidly.

“It’s just too tricky, too difficult, too toxic,” said one; “you look like you’re putting lipstick on the pig,” said another.

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There is no better measure of how far the international reputation of Hong Kong has sunk than when world-class PR firms consider its government a hopeless case.

Michelle Ng is a bilingual writer based in Hong Kong. She is also an English writing coach.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.