Baggage to Beijing
Earlier this month, Oprah Winfrey asked US President Barack Obama what grade he would give himself for his first year in office. 'A good, solid B plus,' he answered. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is now closing a turbulent year with a duty visit to President Hu Jintao in Beijing. Of course, Hu is very unlikely to ask him the 'Oprah question'. Instead, niceties - as expected - will be exchanged. Tsang will probably talk about the city's successful fight against the global economic crisis and thank Hu for Beijing's role in helping us ride out the storm. Hu will then offer recognition for a job well done and encouragement for the challenges that lie ahead. It is safe, then, to assume that this duty visit, like all of Tsang's political pilgrimages of the past, will be uneventful.
But, for sure, 2009 was no 'usual year' for Tsang. In its first few months, he was hit by a double whammy: the global financial crisis and swine flu. With his experience of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and severe acute respiratory syndrome, these two challenges were on Tsang's turf. It would have been his moment to shine. He might have been credited for his handling of financial and public health crises in the past but, second time around, the public has perhaps developed what psychologist Baruch Fischhoff calls 'creeping determinism', which made it much more critical and a lot less generous in praise.
His fortunes - that is, public opinion polls - took a turn for the worse as he was identified as the chief culprit for the massive turnout for this year's June 4 vigil. Nasty politics reached its peak when certain newspapers dragged his in-laws through the political mud over energy-saving light bulbs and Lehman compensation. The beatings he took for his June 4 gaffe and light-bulb saga were phenomenal: nothing he said or did was right, with politicians and the media ready to pounce at any opportunity. This strapped Tsang into a political straightjacket, resulting in opposition to everything from drug testing in schools to the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high-speed rail line.
So, during this 'duty visit', the question that Hu should be asking Tsang is: 'What grade would you give Beijing-Hong Kong relations for 2009?' Ever since Hong Kong watched the thawing of cross-strait relations as an uncomfortably curious observer - with no role to play - people have developed a sense of disconnect, as the city feels its growing insignificance in Beijing's eyes.
And, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics euphoria wore off, 2009 left the Hong Kong people with images of journalists detained, arrested and beaten on the mainland while reporting on the unrest in Urumqi and first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. The threat of Shanghai Disneyland - and indeed, of all the city's potential competitors on the mainland - has only made Hong Kong feel even more marginalised.
Insecurity, coupled with our intensifying Cain complex with Macau (when Beijing praises Macau, Hong Kong feels it is being criticised), has unsettled our relationship with Beijing. It is the combination of all these things that have distanced Hong Kong further from Beijing, reviving a deeply entrenched mistrust. As a result, it is deemed justifiable to have suspicions about everything and everyone the central government vouches for.
It is against this psychological backdrop that the chief executive faces his greatest challenges. The debate over recent issues has been so heated because it directly involves emotional baggage towards Beijing, driving deliberation inwards and away from the bigger picture. The current populist political climate feeds on these emotions, and has made politics painful.
Unfortunately, some have already interpreted the opposition to the Beijing-approved government proposal for constitutional reform as a 'separatist' or 'independence' movement. It is the chief executive's job to let Beijing know that this is not the case. To many, being loud and a little wild may be the only way to be heard. Viewing this as 'separatist' will only spell trouble for 2010.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA