Donald Tsang

The right tone for a crisis

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am


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Is there no limit to the political opportunism that can be extracted from tragedy? Lamentably, the answer is 'no'. The Hong Kong community is still reeling from the fatal bungling of the hostage crisis in Manila but, out there in the lower depths of political pond life, some people are determined to turn tragedy to their advantage.

First up, and this comes as no surprise, was the Liberal Party which thought it could muscle in on the act by turning up outside the Philippines consulate to protest and shout at a bewildered consular official.

The rancid scent of opportunism soon reached the nostrils of other parties, notably the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Democratic Party, which also made their way over to the consulate and started muttering about how the Philippines has to pay for this tragedy. The League of Social Democrats' Wong Yuk-man went one step further with a grandstanding trip to Manila.

Legislators are now floundering around demanding an apology from the Philippines and insisting that Hong Kong plays a role in the investigations into this debacle. Lamentably, any investigation will tell us little that we do not already know about what went wrong and, as for apologies, they have been issued.

In many ways it is difficult for politicians to deal with tragedy: getting the tone right can be hard, overreacting is always a temptation and accusations of opportunism, such as that being made here, are likely.

No party or politician aspiring to a leadership role can remain silent. But there is a vast difference between a dignified response which echoes the community's feelings and one that is driven by a desire to place political leaders at the heart of an event when they should clearly be on the sidelines.

The Civic Party decided not to participate in these protests but took part in a wholly appropriate but little publicised organised signing of a condolence book. Was more required of a political party? I think not; this is not the time for posturing, but it is the time to demonstrate that political parties stand side by side with other citizens in mourning those who lost their lives. It lacks drama, but drama is not required here.

For once, the generally hapless Hong Kong government officials got it more or less right. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was appropriately grave and measured in directing his anger against the bungling of the Philippine government and its law enforcement officers who confirmed their reputation for utter uselessness.

And it was most reassuring to see Tsang move rapidly to quash suggestions of a backlash against Philippine citizens in Hong Kong who clearly cannot be held responsible for what happened.

Whether it will make the slightest difference if Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen cancels a visit to Europe remains dubious, as is talk of setting up task forces.

However, being seen to be doing something is what governments do when they can do little. The reality is that the leadership should be seen to be calm, compassionate and practical. For once, the Hong Kong government stepped up to the mark and even government critics, like me, should acknowledge this.

When something like this happens overseas, Hong Kong suffers from another complication which arises from its status as a special administrative region of China. This status places it in a very different position from provincial governments in other parts of China because Hong Kong has retained a web of autonomous powers, including the issue of travel documents, which do not apply anywhere else in China except Macau.

Thus, on the one hand, the SAR government can and does have its own set of relations with overseas governments, while on the other it is part of a state which leaves the major share of international relations to the central authorities.

China's bureaucracy moves relatively slowly at the best of times because delegation of powers to those within the bureaucracy is severely curtailed. In this instance, Chinese consular officials were slow to arrive at the scene of the tragedy and seemed unsure how exactly to respond.

The SAR government, meanwhile, had to be extremely careful not to be seen as usurping its authority. On the crucial day of the event, it failed to even make direct contact with the upper echelons of the Philippine government.

Now a trip by senior Philippine officials to Beijing and Hong Kong has been postponed at China's insistence. And confusion remains over how the SAR can assert itself when its citizens overseas run into problems. Maybe one small crumb of comfort to be extracted from this tragedy would be to get this sorted out.

Meanwhile, the dignity and solidarity of Hong Kong people is asserting itself. Thank goodness.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur