A place to see no evil and hear no evil speak

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 December, 2009, 12:00am

State Councillor Liu Yandong was in town this week for a whirlwind 24-hour visit which meant, as visits of this kind invariably mean, that she saw all the usual suspects, was shielded from anyone likely to voice a critical opinion and, of course, had no opportunity to speak to a single 'ordinary' person who had not been carefully vetted beforehand.

Yet visits of this kind are often billed as information-gathering exercises and presented as a chance for the Chinese leadership to communicate with the people of Hong Kong.

The reality, however, is that visiting dignitaries spend the bulk of their time closeted with government officials. And then, inevitably, there is a session where local tycoons are given face by being invited to a meeting. This is followed by a gathering or two with the Beijing faithful, sometimes in the form of trade union groups, youth organisations - or any officially recognised 'patriots'.

At some point, the visiting dignitary delivers a homily to the assembled sycophants who are told to do better and love the country more, or something along those lines. On this occasion, Liu stressed the importance of the 12th five-year plan and, sparing no clich? in the interests of conformity, expressed the hope that Hong Kong and Macau would 'seize the opportunity and ride the express train of development'.

So far, so predictable. But, astonishingly, since China's resumption of sovereignty, the entire Legislative Council has never had an opportunity to meet state leaders. Many Legco members remain barred from visiting the nation's capital or, indeed, any other part of the mainland without obtaining a special exemption.

This has been going on for so long that many people in Hong Kong think it is a 'normal' state of affairs. But this is far from the case, indeed it is hard to think of a single other country where elected representatives are prevented from travelling around their own nation.

Given this lack of communication with people who have opinions other than those likely to be welcomed in Beijing, what is the quality of information about Hong Kong being received in the nation's capital?

The evidence suggests it must be pretty poor. While it is true that a large number of agents operate here gathering intelligence for reports that eventually drift up to the leadership, and while it is also true that important people in Beijing have the kind of access to the Hong Kong media denied to the rest of the population, the vital personal link between critics and officials is absent.

All information about criticism is carefully filtered. Those responsible for conveying the contents of critical comments are understandably reluctant to be seen to be endorsing these views and thus can be expected to pass them on in a manner that falls far short of what might be called accurate reporting.

Indeed, it is fascinating to observe the body language of Hong Kong's most senior officials when dealing with their masters from the North. This is epitomised by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who often looks like an eager schoolboy when in the company of these august persons. Who can seriously expect him to give a no-holds-barred account of what critics are saying?

Yet some Beijing officials are notably well informed about Hong Kong. Lu Ping , the former head of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, was an avid consumer of the local media and ordered members of his staff to keep contact with so-called 'dissidents' to ensure that he understood what they were thinking. Some lines of communication remain open but they are very stretched and the overwhelming impression given by Beijing officials is that they are simply not interested in hearing anything that deviates from the party line.

This is a serious matter for Hong Kong because the real decisions about the future are not made here but in Beijing, where awareness of local views is limited.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur