Fostering closer ties

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2009, 12:00am

Since arriving in Hong Kong as Taiwan's cultural envoy in early 2003, Lu Ping has had the uphill task of attempting to transcend politics. With tension engulfing the Taiwan Strait when the island was under the rule of the pro-independent Democratic Progressive Party, her mission to foster cultural exchanges between Hong Kong and Taiwan was fraught with difficulty.

The fact that she had to wait 11 months for a work permit was testimony to the political strain.

That was just the beginning of a difficult cultural-cum-political mission. Government officials have shied away from contact, even though it was in an arts and cultural context. The experience of seeking government-run venues to host cultural performances has proved frustrating, she has said.

But change has come, following the thawing of the frosty cross-strait relations after the inauguration of the Kuomintang government led by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in May last year.

At a meeting with visiting KMT vice-chairman Eric Chu Li-luan, who is also head of Taoyuan county, on April 1, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said he hoped to visit Taiwan before his term ended in 2012. Mr Tsang spoke as Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing was concluding a landmark visit to Taiwan - in his capacity as leader of a joint Hong Kong and Macau delegation of Buddhist associations.

Reflecting on the dramatic changes, Ms Lu said it was merely a return to normalcy. 'It's indeed abnormal for the Hong Kong government to [have been] so unconcerned about what has happened in Taiwan, as if it doesn't exist,' she said.

'Taiwanese society has expressed enormous interest in gaining more of an understanding about Hong Kong. In comparison, Hong Kong has not made a lot of effort to promote itself in Taiwan.'

Regardless of the role Hong Kong wanted to play in cross-strait relations in the future, Ms Lu said the city should make more effort to facilitate mutual exchanges and understanding. 'Hong Kong should not see its role as merely an agent in the transition period of the development of mainland-Taiwan relations. That would be too short-sighted. Hong Kong should play an active role as an important player in the [tripartite] relations,' she said.

And she said it would be a blessing in disguise for Hong Kong to no longer play an intermediary role. 'It will give a stimulus to Hong Kong to develop a true partnership with the mainland and Taiwan.'

Governed by a set of rules laid down by then-vice-premier Qian Qichen before the handover, Hong Kong-Taiwan relations turned from bad to worse after the DPP's Chen Shui-bian ousted the KMT from power in 2000.

Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying said: 'The development of Hong Kong-Taiwan relations cannot become independent from the overall relationship between the mainland and Taiwan, at least as far as government-to-government ties are concerned.'

He said the recent increase in mutual official visits from both sides carried symbolic significance. 'The next stage is to give more thought to what we can talk to each other [about]. There is a lot of room to exchange views and share experiences on a range of issues, such as infrastructure development.'

Mr Leung, who has been helping to foster ties between professionals from both sides since last year, said Hong Kong's services industry had huge potential to develop in Taiwan. 'Our principal officials should step up efforts to promote Hong Kong by, say, inviting Taiwanese journalists to see for themselves the developments here.'

Taiwan issues fall under the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, headed by Stephen Lam Sui-lung. The bureau has been criticised for not focusing enough on Hong Kong-Taiwan relations.

Timothy Wong Ka-ying, an associate director of Chinese University's Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, said the meagre budget (just a few million dollars) set aside for Hong Kong-Taiwan exchanges this year was 'unbelievable'. 'Still, I don't think Legco will oppose an increase in funding for Taiwan issues. It's first of all a question of far-sighted vision. Then it is political will,' he said.

Dr Wong said Hong Kong lost a big opportunity by not forging ties with Taiwan during the long period of uneasy relations. 'Taiwan has increasingly shifted its focus onto the mainland. Now that they have direct channels of dialogue, their interest in Hong Kong has waned. It appears that Taiwanese society now sees clearly that their future lies with the mainland. That line of thinking has transcended party politics.

'If this is the case, the pace of change across the strait will be astoundingly fast. Faced with the fundamental change ... Hong Kong does not have a sense of crisis.

'We ought to act quickly on issues like the relaxation of visa restrictions on Taiwanese people visiting Hong Kong, the setting up of various representative offices and hosting events like the Hong Kong Festival in Taiwan,' Dr Wong said.

Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a veteran China expert, also said Hong Kong had lagged far behind during the fast-paced changes across the strait. 'I'm very disappointed. We wasted over 10 years [after the handover] in playing a role in mainland-Taiwan relations,' he said.

'There is still a lot of room for development in Hong Kong-Taiwan relations in areas like the economy, trade and culture. But the unique role of Hong Kong - under 'one country, two systems' - in easing cross-strait tension has greatly diminished.'

A local delegate of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, who preferred not to be named, said government inaction during the Chen era was understandable. 'They have to take the cue from Beijing. Only when there has been a clear instruction from Beijing have they taken action, such as the visit by Tsang Tak-sing to Taiwan,' the delegate said.

'Under 'one country, two systems', Hong Kong still has a showcase role in mainland-Taiwan relations. I won't be surprised if more senior principal officials, such as the financial secretary, visit Taiwan this year.'

James Tang Tuck-hong, a professor with University of Hong Kong's politics and public administration department, said Hong Kong had to think beyond its traditional intermediary role in the economy and trade.

'The concept of 'Greater China' is no longer fashionable,' he said. 'We have to develop multi-links with Taiwan at different levels. Our policy towards Taiwan is still unclear ... If we look at mainland-Taiwan relations, we begin to see a clearer picture of different stages of development. What about our road map for relations with Taiwan?'

At a special Legislative Council Finance Committee meeting last month, Mr Lam said the government would provide more resources for fostering exchanges between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some HK$4 million had been earmarked for non-governmental organisations to host related seminars and activities. More officials, he said, would visit Taiwan.

Mr Lam is scheduled to reciprocate the visit of Taichung city Mayor Jason Hu, who is attending the Hong Kong Taiwan Inter-City Forum in Hong Kong this week. Mr Hu has been given red-carpet treatment; he was met by the chief executive and invited to dinners hosted separately by Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah during his stay.

Ms Lu said she was confident the momentum for increased relations between Hong Kong and Taiwan would not be adversely affected by cross-strait politics. 'Even though there may still be political fluctuations, there will be no turning back to the past. The fact is that exchanges between the two sides have continued to increase in recent years even when political relations have not been smooth,' she said.

'It's not because this is my job; I genuinely believe there is enormous room for win-win co-operation across the strait [for both sides]. Take the film industry. Hong Kong has a strong film sector ... Taiwan has a lot of young, creative talent. The mainland is a huge market. We've got everything and can complement each other.

'We have made a lot of effort in recent years to pull people and groups together in Hong Kong who are interested in forging ties with Taiwan. The piece still missing in the jigsaw is the [Hong Kong] government.'