Stuck in the middle

Corporate communications professionals face trying times as Hong Kong politics clash, suggests Ketchum’s Chris Liu 

History is testament to that economic uncertainties are a harbinger of great political change. While Hong Kong has side-stepped the worst of recent economic downturns, it has not seemingly avoided the latter. The current political landscape is dominated by talk of the ‘Occupy Central’ movement – a topic that has proven as politically divisive as it has pervasive.

From innocuous beginnings, namely an article published in January’s Hong Kong Economic Journal by the University of Hong Kong’s Benny Tai Yiu-ting on the power of civil disobedience it has mushroomed into a potential rift between China’s Special Administrative Region and the mainland.

More accountability?

The locus of the protest is a lack of confidence in the SAR’s executive leadership and their accountability to Hong Kong’s citizens. Fuelled by a barrage of scandal that has embraced the Beijing-nominated executive and a number of his key policy heads, which has eroded its ruling mandate and ability to govern, the movement’s rise has been meteoric. Demanding an accountable leadership the occupy movement has reignited the long-smouldering debate over universal suffrage. Yet the ongoing battleground is not on Hong Kong’s streets as the media debate may suggest, but within the media itself.

It is a legacy of Hong Kong’s origins that business and industry are often active participants and yield notable influence in local political debate. While business typically occupies the middle ground in this regard this is fast disappearing as the media has assumed increasingly polarised, entrenched positions in Hong Kong’s current climate.

Mainland and local influence remain pre-eminent factors in Hong Kong’s media polarisation. While the legacy of Hong Kong’s British influence remains, media’s nonpartisan stance has shown signs of wear as the debate has raged. The media itself has become a participant in the story, and has left business with few trusted media outlets.

Media storm

While the occupy movement’s campaign, led by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, is centred on how to elect the next chief executive in 2017 the media debate has focused instead on the movement’s apparent threat to incite civil disobedience and occupy central Hong Kong. Tai has emphasised that this would be the campaign’s symbolic final recourse and not a deliberate attempt to disrupt the Hong Kong economy as the movement’s opponents allege. It is, alas, a detail lost in the media storm and is symptomatic of a wider public disenchantment with traditional centrist political figures; many of whom are at the centre of current scandals.

Indeed, as Hong Kong’s centrist leaders have seen their political stock fall public support has drifted to the margins. The migration of public opinion has even carried and raised the profile of politicians previously considered on the fringe of local debate. Indeed, such is the gulf now travelled in public political opinion that even an alternative ‘Reoccupy the [political] Centre’ movement has been spawned. Arguably Hong Kong’s political demographic is fragmenting and this is playing out in the agitated media.

For corporate communications professionals there are few choices in this environment but to wade in. There are no expectations of a quick resolution to the current situation. Hong Kong’s new executive is not expected until 2017.  Frustrations will only grow at the government’s inertia to start consultation on how the elections and nomination process should be done. Meanwhile Hong Kong’s political and media waters will become harder for business and industry to navigate. With public sentiment so sensitive and emotive, communicators need to pay heed that prejudices would easily override sensible judgment and should frame their corporate positioning with extra care and watertight argument.

Engagement with the media must be even more intensive and strategically worked at both the opinion-leading and working-level journalists. This effort has to corroborate with consistent outreach among other channels, mostly via social networks, that increasingly shape and frame the debate in the mainstream.  Above all, authenticity in communications aligning what companies do and say is even more critical as the media and people have become disillusioned with the continued spate of scandals that damaged the integrity of government officials and public figures.

Senior media executives now dictate the conversation and constructive dialogue is needed on both sides of the border given varying sentiments toward both Hong Kong and Beijing in provincial yet influential sectors. While this poses considerable challenges there are some indications that the future will bring change.

The new government of Xi Jingping has softened its traditionally wary stance on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movements. This was made fully apparent in July when the new director of the Liaison Office of the Chinese Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, hosted lunch with the entire legislative council. Not only was he the first top official to have done so since 1997, he stated that there is no doubt that Beijing is dedicated to achieving universal suffrage in the city. Hong Kong’s observers have adopted a wait and see approach.

As yet unstated caveats would undoubtedly apply to such a move. Speculation is that all candidates for elections would require Beijing’s approval. Given Beijing’s staunch anti-corruption agenda this compromise may yet meet with Hong Kong’s approval in light of recent scandals. However, this potential exit from the current conflict remains distant. In the interim, business will need to remain both prudent and proactive in sticking to the middle path.

Chris Liu is the partner and chief business officer, Greater China at Ketchum  

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