Don't drag us into the ring when sparring with Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 April, 2010, 12:00am

Ever since Hong Kong's reversion to China in 1997, it has been dragged into other people's fights with Beijing. Sometimes, it is Hong Kong's own fight, as it was a decade ago when Beijing put pressure on us to make the Falun Gong an illegal organisation. While it cannot be said that Hong Kong emerged completely untainted, our basic rights and freedoms have been maintained and Falun Gong practitioners are still allowed to stage protests openly.

Often, however, we are dragged into something that really isn't our fight. Just the other day, a noted US economist, C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told the House Ways and Means Committee that Hong Kong, like Beijing, was manipulating its currency and should be labelled a currency manipulator (along with Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore).

Bergsten said that Hong Kong manipulated its exchange rate to 'maintain a close relationship' with the Chinese currency. It is mind-boggling that someone in Bergsten's position should be so ignorant and not know that our currency is pegged to the US dollar, not the yuan, and has been since 1983.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah called Bergsten's charges 'odd', which was putting it mildly. While Bergsten might mislead some lawmakers in Washington, he isn't really putting Hong Kong's fundamental freedoms at risk.

Google's actions were potentially in a different category. The internet company announced it had decided to withdraw from the mainland and was rerouting search requests to its uncensored Hong Kong facilities.

In a way, this action was a compliment to China, since it shows that, 13 years after the handover, rights and freedoms here have been respected. On the other hand, however, it was an attempt to make use of Hong Kong's special status under 'one country, two systems' to undermine the mainland government, something that Beijing is unlikely to tolerate.

The outside reaction to Google's action was interesting. On the one hand, right-wing politician John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, called it 'historic'. 'Google has shown itself unwilling simply to be on the receiving end of whatever Beijing dishes out,' he said.

Others were less euphoric. 'My first reaction when I heard that Google had dragged Hong Kong into its feud with mainland China was unmitigated horror,' Muhammad Cohen, a native New Yorker now a Hong Kong permanent resident, wrote. 'Thank goodness it didn't work. If Google's ploy had worked, then Beijing's only option would have been restricting Hong Kong's freedom of information in the name of national security.' That was the sentiment of someone who has Hong Kong's interests at heart.

It is often interesting to listen to debates by people both in and outside Hong Kong. Some insist adamantly that the former British colony is no longer free. Others believe it is and wish to use that freedom in their campaign to change the mainland.

I well remember how, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a number of pro-democracy activists spoke at a lunch in Hong Kong, excoriating Beijing and calling for action.

One speaker proposed placing loudspeakers along the border so that uncensored news could be broadcast into the mainland. Naturally, the British would not permit anything like that. Its impact would have been minuscule but Beijing's reaction could have affected Hong Kong badly.

Hong Kong's freedoms have been respected so far. But there seems little reason to test the limits of Beijing's tolerance. Anyone who has a bone to pick with Beijing can go right ahead - just don't drag Hong Kong into it.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.