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Speech by the Chief Secretary (English only)


Following is the speech (English only) by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mr Donald Tsang, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club Luncheon today (June 21):

Mr President, Mark [Landler], ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you Mark for that very warm introduction. You yourself are in a long line of distinguished correspondents for the New York Times, so I am honoured by your kind words.

I would like at the outset to thank you and your board for inviting me to speak to you today, so soon after my appointment as Chief Secretary. I take it as a signal that the international media maintains a close interest in Hong Kong issues. To me, that is a good thing, because it is vital that Hong Kong builds on its strengths as an international city - Asia's world city, as we like to say - and the presence of our active corps of foreign correspondents and news agencies is a vital component of that.

We are now just a week or so away from the fourth anniversary of the moment when Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. There were tons of news stories on Hong Kong in the years leading up to the first of July 1997 and, while the nature of the story may have changed, there is no doubt that Hong Kong is still well worth writing about, and is the ideal location from which to cover the rest of the region.

So how has the story changed over these past four years? Well, all those question marks raised about Hong Kong's future after the Handover have been comprehensively answered. The fears for our freedoms and way of life have proved to be unfounded. We remain a free society under the rule of law, and I can think of no greater priority as the head of Hong Kong's civil service than to protect and enhance that status. A free society under the rule of law - that's what Hong Kong is all about, and it's important that our community does not lose sight of that.

That's not to say there haven't been changes since the Handover. There have been many. Most of them have been brought about by the fallout from the Asian financial crisis.

To my mind, there have been two major consequences for Hong Kong from that rather unpleasant experience. The first is that the recession forced us to take a closer look at the kind of economy we have been running all these years. By and large, it has been a very successful economy.

The validity of that claim can be measured not just in terms of GDP growth and wealth creation, but in the opportunities it offered to Hong Kong people to give full rein to their talents in business, the professions, the education of their children and the welfare of the elderly and the disadvantaged. Together we have built a fine city that people like myself and many in the audience here today are proud to call home.

But just as the nature of the global economy has changed, the Hong Kong economy has also had to take on a different shape. A dependence on property and asset inflation was never likely to be sustainable, and the Asian financial crisis underlined that in a very painful way. I'll talk a bit more about this later.

The problems unearthed by the Asian financial crisis and the restructuring of our economy bring me to my second point, and that is the effect it has had on the psychology and confidence of our fellow citizens. While our rebound last year was extremely heartening, there is no doubt that a cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the world economic scene. Hong Kong cannot escape from that, although our China connection makes us less vulnerable than some of our neighbours as the Mainland economy remains in remarkably robust health.

But we have never tried to pretend that Hong Kong markets have returned to their frothy days of the mid-nineties. We are acutely aware that many of our citizens are still suffering the after-effects of the recession: there are people holding negative equity in their properties; unemployment is at an uncomfortable level; consumer confidence has not fully recovered; and some are plainly worried about where the new economy is taking them.

Frankly, I think it will lead us in challenging and exciting new directions. But I accept that my saying so will not necessarily relieve the worries of someone who may be facing a career change or, worse, a job loss because of the shifts taking place in the economy.

I am conscious, too, that the unusually volatile economic circumstances which coincided with the first few years of life as part of China have made people think more deeply about their identity and their future. I think that is a good thing, because any society must have a sense of purpose and direction to succeed.

The fact is that for all of the discussions and debates which are faithfully recorded in our media, Hong Kong people do have an underlying sense of unity. We are indeed a diverse and argumentative bunch. This is our strength. But at the end of the day we share common goals and aspirations and a shared history of success, very often against the odds. That's another thing we must not lose sight of.

For myself, I think it is time to focus less on some of the things we don't agree about and concentrate on those which we do. This does not mean we should try to bury issues that concern us at home and in the wider world. We are a free society. We couldn't do that even if we wanted to. In Hong Kong's unique constitutional circumstances, we are always going to be confronted with issues like the Falun Gong or the shape of democratic development.

We have to deal with these peculiarly Hong Kong issues in a Hong Kong way. In doing so, we should always bear in mind our underlying objectives as a community. At the end of the day, Hong Kong people are not much different from people elsewhere. They want the opportunity to make a decent living and make life better for themselves and their children.

That's not a bad starting point. I certainly believe there is still a strong consensus in the community about our economic goals. Hong Kong people believe in low taxes, small government and stable growth. They like to enjoy the fruits of their labour without giving too many bites to the tax collector.

More importantly, they believe in the values that underpin the nature of our economy. I call them the four pillars: the rule of law; the free flow of information and ideas; clean, transparent government; and a level playing field for all.

The government has a role to play in all of this. It must provide direction. I believe we have done so these past four years. We have steered our way out of the recession. During that time we took bold steps to save our currency and, indeed, the economy.

We have moved the economy away from an over-dependence on property and shifted the focus to innovation and technology. Our Internet bubble burst the same as everybody else's, but it cannot mask the fact that, like the US, we have made great productivity gains through technology. I am confident the Cyberport will prove its critics wrong. Our telecommunications market is the most liberalized in the world.

We have introduced lasting and effective reforms in the stock markets and in the financial services and banking sectors. We are repositioning our tourism industry, spearheaded by Hong Kong Disneyland.

We have the vision and the confidence - some would say the chutzpah - to brand Hong Kong as Asia's world city.

We are set to achieve our goals by capturing the new global trading patterns; by leveraging e-commerce. The new technology is the key to everything we do, be it in banking, financial services, insurance, even manufacturing. We need to use all of our creativity and ingenuity to harness change to our advantage - in other words to re-invent ourselves, just as we have done so successfully in the past.

I want to see my fellow citizens rediscover the sense of self-confidence and self-belief that has characterised Hong Kong from time immemorial . Throughout our history, we have proved ourselves as traders and entrepreneurs. We have a workforce whose skills, adaptability and work ethic are legendary. As free traders, we know all about the rest of the world and how it works.

I can think of no other community better equipped in terms of know how, experience, business networks and hard and soft infrastructure to reap the rewards of globalisation. And I certainly feel entirely confident that we have the wherewithal to withstand the competition from our neighbours in the Mainland and around the region. We have always thrived on competition and we should not shy away from it now. Just think of the opportunities that lie before us.

We have this marvellous new niche in the Mainland to help us grasp them. Our hinterland in the Pearl River Delta offers unlimited potential. China's accession to the WTO is another golden opportunity for us to grow, whatever the sceptics may claim. The whole of China is our backyard. Don't forget that Hong Kong is not just the largest external investor in the Mainland - it is the largest investor in every single province and region.

We are in the box seat to profit from our access to China and its potential because of Deng Xiaoping and his brilliant concept of One Country Two Systems. That means we need to guard our unique separate identity within our country because this is our value and contribution to the development of the nation. We will not contribute to China's growth by losing our value system and separate identity. It is certainly not the way to remain faithful to Deng Xiaoping's vision and, indeed, to the Basic Law.

But I do feel it is important for Hong Kong to know more about our country and why being One-Country is critical for the economic success of Hong Kong. It is equally important for our fellow countrymen in the Mainland to know more about us and the system that works in Hong Kong. My recent Go West mission was partly about that.

Did I take all of those businessmen there in the expectation of clinching a clutch of deals? Of course not. I did however hope to establish a Hong Kong beachhead out west, and I think we succeeded in doing that.

More to the point, we were able to demonstrate to many people in the Mainland what One Country Two Systems is all about. They could certainly see that we were very much part of the nation, albeit from a very different part. Perhaps we seemed a little strange. Even a bit eccentric. What better way to show off our different system? And it gave all of us in the delegation, including a large media contingent, the opportunity to see and learn about parts of the country that we might not otherwise have had the chance to see, and about remarkable achievements and kindred affection that make us feel proud and warm as part of that country.

I see it as part of my larger mission to foster a greater sense of understanding of One Country Two Systems on both sides of the boundary. I believe this is the best way to increase its effectiveness and protect its integrity.

As I have already said, safeguarding our separate system is the key to its success. Hong Kong people cherish their freedom. We have carved out a way of life that makes us distinctive in the region. There is no better illustration of this than our rumbustious press and our combative legislature. Anyone who thinks civil servants are on a cushy number should spend a day with me and my colleagues being put through the hoops at LegCo, followed by a close encounter with our press posse. As much as I occasionally yearn for a quiet life, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Of course, our two economies have been interlinked for many years. In that sense, Hong Kong and the Mainland are a natural fit.

But I think we should take care in defining this special relationship. I like to think of our economic relationship as one of interdependence rather than other looser descriptions, including, say, integration, a word that pessimists might see as tantamount to absorption and demise of the two systems.

Interdependence implies that the two economic entities rely on each other for support in order to prosper. Each has its own characteristics and they are complementary to one another. It in no way conflicts with the political reality and our belief that Hong Kong is part of China under One Country Two Systems. Indeed, interdependence is the natural offspring of the Two-Systems principle.

Another important off-spring of One Country Two Systems is the need for Hong Kong people to have an international outlook. To ensure that Hong Kong remains the most friendly and most comfortable city in Asia for any foreign national to visit or stay. That means, in particular, the widespread use of English. I hardly need to tell this audience how important that is. My colleague Fanny Law gave a speech to the club recently outlining what the government is doing to improve the situation.

As Fanny pointed out, we are doing a lot. Notwithstanding this, from all I hear from both local and international employers, it is not enough. They complain of a real shortage of young people with the requisite language skills.

I love my mother tongue. Cantonese is such a rich and colourful language, so much fun to use. Putonghua will come naturally with our young generation. But I don't want people, particularly young people, to fall out of the habit of speaking in English. Indeed, I conduct many of my meetings with my colleagues in English even when there are no expatriates present. It's a good reminder to all of us about the importance of retaining the best aspects of our heritage. In my view, to master the use of the English language in addition to writing Chinese and speaking Putonghua is a singularly important asset which every young citizen of the Hong Kong SAR should acquire. To be a successful international financial centre as mandated in the Basic Law, Hong Kong needs to speak more and better English.

Mr President, I have already taken up much of your time. I know that in the fine traditions of this club your audience is dying for me to finish this speech so that they can put me through the wringer. I would like to sign off by paying tribute to the Foreign Correspondents' Club for the role it has played in promoting the cause of press freedom in Hong Kong. And, of course, for providing a watering hole for its members and associates and by demonstrating to the many visitors to your club that freedom of speech is alive and well in Hong Kong, and occasionally raucous, particularly on Friday nights.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time.

End/Thursday, June 21, 2001