Tea Leaf Nation

The Rant About Hong Kong That’s Still Viral — 14 Years Later

When it comes to Hong Kong governance, some issues don't go away.

Youtube/Fair Use
Youtube/Fair Use

"I didn’t say we would choose [Hong Kong’s Chief Executive] by imperial order," China’s president bellowed at the crowd of Hong Kong reporters assembled in Beijing. "Whether or not he continues in office must be decided according to Hong Kong laws." Gesticulating and berating the gathered journalists — and declaring in English, "I am angry" — the president (and chairman of the ruling Chinese Communist Party) continued, "Of course we do have the right to decide … The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region belongs to China, to the people’s central government of the People’s Republic of China!"

This rare public sparring between China’s number one and the press did not occur during the current Hong Kong pro-democracy street protests, now stretching into their second month. Rather, this now-famous outburst over Hong Kong governance occurred almost exactly 14 years, on Oct. 27, 2000, when Jiang Zemin stood at China’s helm. Jiang responded with what was widely perceived as a loss of self-control to a young Hong Kong reporter’s questioning whether Beijing had "pre-ordained" Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive after the city’s return from British colonial rule to mainland sovereignty in 1997, for another term. Then, as now, Hong Kong roiled with debate about how the largely self-governing city’s chief executive should be selected — and whether or not Beijing does, or should, have a say. And then, as now, Chinese censors tried unsuccessfully to eliminate all online evidence that the encounter had ever happened.

On Oct. 27, an article titled "Today, 14 years Ago" containing a transcript of Jiang’s rant appeared on  massive Chinese mobile chat platform WeChat, where it quickly garnered more than 21,000 views before being deleted by censors the next day. (Original footage of the exchange can be viewed on YouTube, which is blocked in China; related searches on Chinese search engine Baidu yielded no results. Perhaps appropriately, during his outburst, Jiang insisted the Chinese saying, "a muffled voice brings fortune," was "the best phrase.") The transcript posted on WeChat is virtually identical to the original speech, with some humorous revisions. In some cases, Jiang is referred to not as "Chairman Jiang" but as "Chairman Toad," a reference to a recent Internet meme comparing Jiang’s face to that of a giant inflatable frog. (The word "toad" has now become an Internet stand-in for Jiang, since the former president’s name is a sensitive term on the Chinese web, where censors periodically scrub all references.) In other parts, he is referred to as "elder," because in his original tirade, he remonstrated the reporter that he was "speaking as your elder" and found her queries "simple" and "naïve."

Jiang’s outburst came amid debate over who really pulled the strings in the selection of the chief executive, Hong Kong’s top government official. In Oct. 2000, Tung’s first five-year term was set to end in less than two years, and it was unclear who would have final say over whether or not Tung continued for another term; with Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing business interests overly represented in city government, pro-democracy lawmakers, media, and activists voiced suspicions that Beijing might exercise influence over Hong Kong’s first transition of governance after its return to Beijing’s authority. During Tung’s visit to Beijing in Oct. 2000, a Hong Kong journalist’s question used the word "imperial" to describe Beijing’s support and perhaps "internal ordainment" of the pro-Beijing Tung, setting off Jiang’s angry response. (Tung did assume a second five-year term, but resigned in 2005 amid deep unpopularity, citing health concerns.)

According to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution adopted after the former British colony’s transfer back to mainland sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong should enjoy a "high degree of autonomy," and the city’s chief executive should be elected by a "broadly representative nominating committee." Today’s pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong still center around the interpretation and implementation of these vague phrases. The enduring nature of this problem perhaps explains why the angry tirade of a former president still reverberates around the Chinese Internet today. 

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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