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“Like putting lipstick on a pig”-you know how much Carrie Lam’s administration has trashed Hong Kong when even the best PR firms refuse to help

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 this photo.


The 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 demeanor and air of resignation looked familiar; in a flash I remembered where I'd last seen such body language - on the likes of Silda Sptizer 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.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer announces his resignation amidst a prostitution scandal as wife Silda looks on March 12, 2008 in his offices in New York City. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Huma Abedin stands beside her husband, New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, as he speaks during a news conference at the Gay Men's Health Crisis headquarters, July 23, 2013, in New York. The former congressman says he's not dropping out of the New York City mayoral race in light of newly revealed explicit online correspondence with a young woman. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

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 Carrie 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." 

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.

Now, 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 absence.

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 on her.

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.

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's email: [email protected]
Michelle Ng's website: https://michellengwritings.com/

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