THE late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping yearned so much to step foot on a Chinese-ruled Hong Kong that he reportedly said:
“My biggest wish is to live till 1997, because Hong Kong will be reunified with us then and I want to go over and take a look - even if I have to sit on a wheelchair.
“Just standing for a minute on the land of Hong Kong will be good enough.”
Alas, the diminutive but powerful man who orchestrated the opening up of modern China did not attain his dream.
On Feb 19, 1997 - 130 days shy of July 1 when the handover of the city from British to Chinese rule was to take place, the 92-year-old succumbed to Parkinson’s disease and died of complications arising from lung infections.
Deng didn’t make it to Hong Kong (although he had passed through the city several times before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949).
But in what organisers clearly intend as a show of pathos, his wheelchair did.
Over the weekend, the Japanese-manufactured metal contraption, under the Nissin brand, took place of pride at a three-day exhibition here to mark the 110th anniversary of Deng’s birth.
Organised by official entities such as the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Party Literature Research Office as well as Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po, the exhibition showcased the legacy of Deng - and in particular, his significance for Hong Kong - at a time when the city is embroiled in heated political debate over its constitutional reform to achieve universal suffrage.
This week, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislative body, is meeting to set out the parameters of how freely Hong Kongers can run for election.
Beijing has said that only “patriots” who “love the country and love Hong Kong” can qualify; the city’s pro-democracy politicians and activists worry that this is a byword for sifting out those from their camp and depriving the electorate of “genuine choice”.
It was thus no coincidence that in Hong Kong, where Deng is generally viewed positively as a reformist and pragmatic leader (as well as the architect of the “one-country two-systems” framework that allows the city a “high degree of autonomy”), a 10-minute clip at the exhibition featured prominently his emphasis that only those who “love the country, love Hong Kong” can govern the city.
His affection for Hong Kong was also emphatically underscored. He chose to make his first public appearance following his third and final return to power in 1977 at a football game between the China youth team and a team from Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, declared Deng, must be a role model for Macau and Taiwan in their return to the Chinese fold.
He promised in his Sichuanese-accented Mandarin: “Ma zhao pao, gu zhao chao, wu zhao tiao!” - “The horse races will continue, the stock market will continue, and so will the dances!”.
Concludes the narrator in the clip: “So long as Hong Kong adheres to Deng's articulation of the one-country, two-systems framework, its future will be even brighter.”
The thing is, few were listening. On a hot Saturday aftermoon, barely 100 people - most of them silver-haired - surveyed the exhibition with its over 400 photographs of Deng at various stages of his life, with far more streaming toward the computer fair on the ground floor of the convention centre at Wan Chai.
History undergraduate Bryan Koo, 20, says that few among his peers are interested in the exhibition. “I think they will be bored or they will think that this is just propaganda from the viewpoint of the central government.”
For instance, while the exhibition covered Deng’s accomplishments extensively, including how he developed the economy while opening up the country to the world, other more controversial events were glossed over.
The 1989 Tiananmen Incident was not mentioned, though a sentence alluded to how “China faced a severe trial in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when political storms occurred both at home and abroad”.
And even among those present at the exhibition, not all are willing to accept the sanctioned definition of how the one-country two-systems principle should play out.
An 84-year-old retiree, who wants to be known only as Uncle Leung, points to the controversy stirred up by the recent white paper issued by Beijing, which critics say signals a tightening of the central government’s grip on the city.
“The one-country two-systems framework is very complicated - it’s not just about horse races or the stock market, but how a changing China and Hong Kong can execute this principle in a way that both can accept.”