Hong Kong to bask in warmer Strait ties

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2009, 12:00am

The winds of change blowing across the Taiwan Strait could not be more apparent. With mainland-Taiwan relations having improved markedly since the Kuomintang returned to power in May, ties between Hong Kong and Taiwan are also warming up.

It will be history in the making today when Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing sets foot on the island, becoming the first Hong Kong principal official to do so since the handover.

Never mind that Mr Tsang will be wearing the hat of honorary head of a Buddhist delegation from Hong Kong; the trip will herald a new era in the Hong Kong-Taiwan relationship.

A spokesman for the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office was telling a half truth on Wednesday when she said that relations between Hong Kong and Taiwan had never been cold. Exchanges between the two, in particular at a government-to-government level, have by no means been warm.

At times, relations have been soured by controversies. The denial of a visa for Ma Ying-jeou, the then-Taipei mayor and now Taiwan's president, to attend a conference at the University of Hong Kong several years ago caused more than a little friction. It also worsened the negative perception among Taiwanese of Hong Kong under 'one country, two systems' since 1997.

Such bad publicity was capitalised on by the then Democratic-Progressive-Party-led government, which nurtured much fear and scepticism towards the communist authorities on the mainland.

Caught between such cross-strait tensions, the Hong Kong government's hands were tied when handling the Taiwan issue.

Under the existing policy on Hong Kong-Taiwan relations, government officials here need the consent of the central government before they can contact their Taiwan counterparts.

Reports said that Mr Tsang's predecessor, Patrick Ho Chi-ping, had also been invited to attend a cross-strait Buddhist conference in Taiwan, in 2006. Although he was said to have expressed an interest, the then administration did not give its blessing.

With direct links across the strait resuming, and the momentum of rapprochement continuing, signs of warmer Hong Kong-Taiwan relations have emerged in the past few months.

In January, Taichung's mayor, Jason Hu Chih-chiang, became the first Taiwanese official to have a formal meeting with Hong Kong officials, including Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, during a visit to the city. Following his visit, Permanent Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Joshua Law Chi-kong went to Taichung to work out details of the first intercity forum, to be held in Hong Kong next month.

It looks likely that more principal officials, such as Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung, whose portfolio covers Taiwan, will follow in Mr Tsang's footsteps before too long.

In a sense, relations between Hong Kong and Taiwan had been defined as a zero-sum game. Put bluntly, Hong Kong has benefited by playing an intermediary role.

There is no denying that the resumption of direct Taiwan-mainland links will have an adverse impact on certain businesses in Hong Kong. That said, the changing political climate will also open up new opportunities of co-operation in areas such as tourism, arts and culture, the environment, and heritage conservation. And, given its unique status, culture and systems, Hong Kong will be in a strong position to forge a new role in mainland-Taiwan relations while fostering its own ties with Taipei.

Just like the changes in mainland-Taiwan ties since May, relations between Hong Kong and Taiwan are likely to change at a much faster pace than expected, posing new challenges for policymakers.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.